Eagle-Con isn't a typical fan convention. Named for California State University Los Angeles' mascot, the Golden Eagle, this is an event for students.
The convention, which opened on Thursday, takes place over two weekday afternoons inside of the Student Union on a campus that serves over 20,000 students. For some, the convention was part of class. There was a roll sheet that was passed around one of the panel sessions.
Despite its academic nature, Eagle-Con is still a fan convention. On the first day of the event, we saw one girl dressed as Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time and another wearing a uniform jacket from the anime series Attack on Titan. Classes don't have to get in the way of cosplay.
Rhonda Mitchell is the program coordinator for the Cross Cultural Center at CSULA. She devises events that will encourage students to look at diversity both on campus and in the city. Not long ago, she noticed a group of gamers who would play at a table near her office. At the same time, she saw how students were embracing superhero movies. Mitchell thought about how they could discuss diversity within the context of these pop culture touchstones that had made such an impact with the student body. Eagle-Con developed from that idea.
Working with Mitchell on Eagle-Con is Christopher Johnson, the campus involvement coordinator at the university's Center for Student Involvement. “I'm a huge comic book nerd myself,” says Johnson, who also writes science-fiction. “The idea of this on our campus made me really excited.”
Johnson saw Eagle-Con as an opportunity to include students who may not have attended their events previously. “Our goal is to reach as many students as possible,” he says. “This event to me was a great way to reach a new group of people or a new segment of the population that we may not have been reaching.”
Eagle-Con is structured similar to other conventions. There's an exhibit hall where attendees can pick up comics and collectibles. A small pop-up art gallery displays works from the Art Directors Guild, including storyboards from sci-fi and comic book-based movies. What stands out about Eagle-Con are the panel sessions. The convention runs with four panels a day, two of which will occur at the same time in different rooms. The focus of the panels is on diversity and representation in media. On Thursday, there were talks about how women, people of color and LGBTQ people are represented in genre books and film. On Friday, there's a scheduled panel discussing the experiences of black and Latina female cosplayers.
These sorts of panels that encourage audience members to think critically about media are often a part of conventions, but they also tend to be the smaller panels that are overshadowed by celebrity guest appearances and announcements about new movies and books. At Eagle-Con, they're the focus.
“That was important to us, to make sure that there was a strong academic component to this,” says Johnson. They worked with Patrick Sharp, the chair of the Liberal Studies department, to help put together the convention.
Sharp moderated a panel on Thursday afternoon called “Steamfunk 101.” The session featured Balogun Ojetade, a writer and filmmaker whose area of expertise is steamfunk. This is a genre that focuses on African and African-American-centric science fiction stories that reference the same period of time as steampunk. Ojetade referred to himself as a “steamfunkateer” and spoke at length on the need for steamfunk. He talks about the history of science fiction in terms of its portrayals African and African-American characters and how that impacted readers. “We were always the savage, noble or otherwise,” he says. When speaking on his own experience with science fiction, he notes, “Every time I read a science fiction book, I was hurt.”
Joining Ojetade was De Witt Douglas Kilgore, from Indiana University, an English and American Studies professor who has written about topics like the Marvel character Black Panther. Kilgore noted, that science fiction “primarily imagines the future as one that extends outward of Western civilization.” Steamfunk imagines worlds that are unique from those that exist in the American and European Industrial Revolution-inspired tales found in steampunk.
Earlier in the day, representatives from Bent-Con, the LGBTQ pop culture convention, spoke about representation in genre works. They spoke about their own experiences. Viktor Kerney talked about the importance of slash fiction, a form of fan fiction where people place existing characters in same-sex relationships. Slash fiction, he said, exists to compensate for a lack of representation in mainstream media. “You pretend that maybe [the characters] get together in another world,” he says.
Overall, the Bent-Con reps see representation improving for gay and lesbian characters. However, they noted, there are areas that need work. Kerney said that there's still a lack of solid stories concerning transgender characters as well as LGBTQ characters of color.
Thursday afternoon at Eagle-Con was an education experience as much as it was a fun one. The convention continues today from 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
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