Fridays at Banning High School in Wilmington, Calif., were spirit days in 1979. The cheerleaders wore their short-skirted uniforms, the football players their jerseys, and the pep club donned red, black and white sweaters. As the president of the science fiction club, I wore a Star Fleet uniform.
At 6’4″ and 170 lbs., my growth spurt overcame much of the junior high school abuse handed out often to a short, chubby flute player. Mrs. Brown, Ms. Sapp and Ms. Garland provided shelters for The Drama Club, The Science Fiction Club and The Shakespeare Club. But when outside of those club environments, members of these clubs were perceived as the often too-smart, free-spirited, just-out-of-step misfits that bullies favored. We usually didn’t fight back, and even the non-bullies found our choices hard to defend.
Bullying was a big deal in 1979 and it is a big deal now. What to do about it has become a topic of intense interest at the world’s largest science fiction club, the event known as International Comic-Con. While most panels are about consumption, the Heroism IRL (in-real-life) panel encouraged action. As panelist Matt Langdon, “Hero Builder” of The Hero Construction Company points out, “For me, the opposite of a hero is not a villain; it’s a bystander. A hero takes action when they see something wrong, despite a risk or sacrifice.”
The Pop Culture Hero Coalition was founded by actress Chase Masterson with heroism experts Carrie M. Goldman and Langdon. Goldman realized the impact of bullying when her daughter was being told in first grade that she couldn’t be a Star Wars fan because she was a girl. Goldman shaped that experience into, Bullied, a best-selling book that led to work in schools aimed at raising awareness about bullying among parents, teachers, administrators and the children themselves.
“We celebrate onscreen heroes at Comic-Con — but we’re leaving out a crucial part of the conversation if we end it there,” Masterson said. “We love these stories because deep down, we know we’re meant to do heroic things ourselves. And this population has suffered greatly. The geeks are inheriting the earth, but there’s still a huge amount of bullying that takes place with pop culture fans. We’re here to say we see the pain, we’re helping to heal it, and to create a world that stands against bullying and for inclusivity.”
Masterson, who works tirelessly to bring these events to fruition, gathered an illustrative panel for Comic-Con 2015 that included Goldman, Langdon, United Nations Association San Diego President Bettina Hausmann, NO H8 campaign founders Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley, and activists like Doctor Who and Torchwood actor John Barrowman, Jokers Wild & Impractical Jokers’ Joe Gatto and Entertainment Weekly Senior Writer Anthony Breznican, the author of Brutal Youth.
The Pop Culture Hero Coalition, as Masterson describes it, was founded to “encourage both everyday and extraordinary heroism in IRL through the examples of onscreen heroes, pop culture stories, and the people who create them.”
John Barrowman, for instance, shared an elementary school story of being pushed and locked into a locker. In the dark confines of his locker, where all he could think about was, “don’t cry, don’t cry,” the tiny voice of his friend Amy whispered through the louvered doors, “what is your combination?” Amy was a hero.
For Joe Gatto, the message is that kids being bullied can learn not just from what famous people experience, but from where they are now, having traveled through their youth. “I know what it was like to be picked on and feel alone as a child growing up, but also know that you do come out of it OK. So I want to share that with the fans to let them know it really will be ok.”
When it comes to being a hero, Gatto puts his success in perspective. “It’s a huge responsibility to be in the public eye, because you truly do have a superpower — your voice,” he said. “I can spread a message and try to influence people out there for what I think is a good way to live. To really be there for someone who feels abandoned or needs a laugh to help them feel like they will be ok. That’s what I try to do everyday. And it feels great.”
Breznican shared his enthusiasm, adding, “There’s no other panel at Comic-Con I’d rather be a part of! (Well, except Star Wars. I would love to be IN Star Wars.) But other than that, I’m beyond proud to be a part of the Pop Culture Hero Coalition and the good work and positivity they create in a world that’s not so far, far away.”
“The blend of imagined and real superheroes is at the heart of Comic-Con, and it will take heroes in all forms from all parts of the world to address bullying, intolerance, and hate,” added Hausmann.
Comic-Con, Goldman asserted, “is interesting, because there are thousands of people who come to Comic-Con because they have been marginalized by society. They come seeking a place where they can feel a sense of belonging, where they can express who they are, and we want to reach those people. We want to teach them that they are not alone. So, on the one hand, we want to reach the targets of bullying. On the other hand, many people who come to Comic-Con also engage in the very same bullying behaviors that they abhor. They judge attendees and cosplayers harshly and attack female gamers and try to label each other as hot or not hot geeks. So, we also want to address these behaviors and get people to do some soul searching about who they are and how they want to influence the world.”
No H8 founder Parshley added, “Comic-Con goers are known for letting their freak flag fly and we support everyone and believe in everyone.”
Bouska continued, “This venue is perfect to have the discussion about standing up for ourselves and each other.”
In closing, Chase Masterson harkened back to John Barroman’s story: “For John, it all started with one girl outside your locker asking for your combination. And the combination is love. The combination is you guys making a difference. We all love superheroes. Why not be one? Make a stand for who you are, and make a stand to make a difference for somebody else.”
Comic-Con is not just the place where big studios come to tout their next blockbuster, or fans line-up to collect show specials. Comic-Con is also the place where people who march to many different tunes come to rally for acceptance, and in San Diego, for a few days a year, to be the accepted majority.