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Most fieldwork for anthropologists takes us far from home, to places that are unusual and cultures that are unfamiliar. But for those of us who work in the United States, fieldwork often involves visiting communities that have some unique circumstances: perhaps they perform special rituals or create particularly intriguing art or present challenges to the mainstream culture that are worth taking note of. All of these apply to Comic-Con in San Diego. It is a gathering that through the years has grown to become one of the largest events that wants people to talk about popular culture: those areas of American life that are often considered unworthy of serious consideration. Yet what anthropologists do is exactly this: we take seriously those things that are overlooked by everyone else as everyday routines or as productions aimed for common audiences. From our perspective, if you want to understand what is going on in a culture, you need to look at this material and not just established institutions or fine art or economic policies. We need to go where people are and we need to see what they are doing and, as is the custom in our discipline, do exactly what they are doing too.

I will definitely avoid falling into silly cliches about the anthropologist in the field encountering the “primitives” when talking about this event. Not only is it a silly approach to take, it is a poor reflection on how anthropologists actually work with people. We long ago gave up the Us vs Them approach and all the derogatory implications of that separation. It’s too easy to make fun of things that seem odd at first; it is much harder to explain why they are worth our time.

In many ways Comic-Con is the ideal place to land for a bit of participant observation. I’ll be going, of course, to presentations and talks by comic artists and industry hotshots, but I also plan to just talk to people, to observe and to listen as people celebrate their love of comics. A preview of the trade show opens tomorrow evening and the huge displays of comics, old and new, will be just amazing and way too tempting…