At any comic con, you'll find many hardcore fans who've traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to meet others who share their love. This time and money intensive process includes spending months replicating a costume with exacting attention to detail, piling five more people into an airbnb than is recommended, and often leaving with an extra suitcase filled with swag. That's not to say that the only reason fans frequent comic cons is to stunt — the real core is community, one that sci-fi has built.
Often, it's because these stories are mirrors of their own, reflecting the ultimate human need: to connect and belong. Fans see themselves in super-powered heroes who share their struggle, regardless of extraordinary attributes and abilities. They see that even those who are different, othered, but are not alone.
Sci-fi, long been known as the realm of the outlier, is based around characters and fans alike who see and experience the world differently. It draws in people who feel like they don't quite fit the norm and creates a place for them to belong. Sci-fi fandoms offer a place to identify and connect when identity and connection feel scarce.
TV Guide headed to Wizard Con to talk to fans there about how sci-fi brought them a sense of community as they were battling the issues — poverty, mental health, sexuality, gender, etc — in their lives that told them they didn't belong.
Josue Cardona, creator of the Geek Therapy podcast, believes it's the connection between the individual and the group that makes fandoms so powerful. "We care about the material, so our emotions are core to our experience," he says. "When you come to a piece of art like that, you are open to feeling different things, to seeing yourself and your experiences in the story." He finds that identifying helps us both personally and communally.
"As someone diagnosed with ADHD, I see one of my favorite characters, The Doctor, as someone with ADHD," he says. "The Doctor has not received that diagnosis, but I see that in him, not from a clinical perspective but from a personal one. I see my experiences portrayed in his."
Fandom bridges fantasy and reality, providing a common language to discuss our own lives. "The most relatable moments come from character interactions," Cardona says. "We take it out of context, we project our own emotions and experiences into what we see and feel connected. There are very specific, intentional examples of mental health issues in lots of great sci-fi... Some that stand [out] to me [are] Dualla's (Kandyse McClure) hopelessness and suicide in Battlestar Galactica dissociative identity disorder in Mr. Robot, and Tyler's (Shazad Latif) PTSD on Star Trek: Discovery."
Emma, a high school student with depression, feels a strong connection with Steven Universe. "It's special to me," they say. "It's about connection between people, how to handle it, and finding an understanding of who you are." The character of Lapis Lazuli has PTSD and, while Emma doesn't share that diagnosis, they understand Lapis's perspective. "She acts in this gloomy, depressed [way] and is very protective. I relate to the depression part of it, [but] I'm inspired by [the character of] Steven and his positivity," they say.
As someone who identifies as non-binary, Emma also sees a bond with Garnet. "They're made up of two gems and struggle to be free," Emma explains. "I relate to the characters who create Garnet because of the journey. It's not a mental thing, but more of the emotional process."
They see Garnet as a demonstration of a real-life conundrum. "We live in this society where it's hard to be yourself," Emma says. "We're advised to do it and [are] judged for doing it." They say that Garnet shows how hard it is to figure out who you are. "[It's like trying to] find yourself, but not understanding who you are, while trying to convince others of who you are," they say.
Sometimes who you are changes in ways that can be frightening. The Star Wars galaxy helps Mike, a graphic artist who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2014, face the uncertainty of his disease. "It can be pretty scary sometimes," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen."
But he describes his attitude like a true fan: "It's Yoda-esque. Keeping the light and hope alive brings progress." The alternative is to turn to the Dark Side and allow negativity about his illness to take over. He refuses to let that happen. "Darth Vader is cool and all," he says. "But... no way." Star Wars brings him some comfort. "It gives me hope and even guidance," he says.
Sometimes that hope, even inspiration can come from those responsible for the fandoms. Emily, an actor, is empowered by Wil Wheaton's frankness about his own depression and anxiety and sees that openness as a source of encouragement. "People who are stigmatized [are empowered by] having these people admit that they have problems too," she says. "The people who make this are going through stuff too."
A devoted Whovian, Emily was energized by her stage door encounter with David Tennant, who offered to take a selfie with her. "Fandom has gotten me to places I would not have gone [because of my anxiety]," she says. "I used to think it was ridiculous, but not anymore. [It's] helped me to be less afraid of spontaneity."
She also sees fandoms and portrayals of mental health issues advancing the real-world conversations. "Doctor Who [shows it] and it's normalized, which is good. Because then people are talking about it and it's out in the world," she says. "It's overwhelmingly a bonding thing... you can connect through this."
Many fans mention the relief that comes from talking about their challenges with others, especially those who understand them firsthand. But when that response isn't available, the outlet of the fandom helps too. Joe, a teacher and X-Men enthusiast, says, "I was lucky to grow up in an age where mental health issues became less taboo... X-Men reinforced these ideals, teaching me that there is healing in finding community, perceived weaknesses can in fact be strengths, and that I shouldn't have to apologize for who I am."
Since childhood, he's identified with and found clarity in the characters. "As a gay man with a history of socio-emotional struggles, I have always seen myself in the pages," he says. "Rogue was always a character I related to. With a personal history of isolation and an authoritarian upbringing, she [was limited by] her circumstances... In her otherness, Rogue's journey reflected my journey with depression and suicidal ideation... As a child with mental health needs, it was reassuring to think about finding my own X-Men."
Bennett and Melissa
Bennett, a college student, and Melissa, a journalist, found a similar bond in the Buffyverse. Buffy the Vampire Slayer provided both with a link that was largely absent for them. "Buffy was the first show I watched with a gay character in it, and Willow was there for me as I came out to my friends," Bennett says. "When Willow and Tara got into a relationship, I felt the strength to come out to my family... Willow made it feel like I had someone there for me who understood, because in reality I really didn't for a very long time." Josue Cardona calls this a vital part of healing and maintaining mental wellness. "Some mental health issues include feelings of isolation and loneliness," he says. "So, feeling like you are part of a group, that you are not alone, can be very healthy and [even] an essential part of recovery."
For Bennett, Buffy spoke to the problems they faced in their daily life. "It was a show about supernatural teens dealing with supernatural obstacles that were [actually] normal teen problems like feeling invisible, or feeling like a significant other turned on you, or wanting revenge, or even alcohol abuse," they say. The show "provided... a fantastical lens to real life problems that helped [them] find people to relate to and feel better about [their] own issues."
Melissa agrees that Buffy "showed that you could go through traumas and struggle and still come out on the other side — that these struggles didn't have to completely destroy you." When her own struggles arose, such as depression and anxiety, and, later, her father's suicide, she found reinforcement in that world. "It definitely helped me process some of my own grief as I identified with these characters," she says about the episodes dealing with Joyce Summers's (Kristine Sutherland) death. "They'd been up against the worst and evilest of demons and could usually defeat them. But [here they were] faced with something so real, so human, and they couldn't fight their way out of it. They had to feel the pain, the loss, the sadness." Identifying with the humanity of the problems, from the distance of the fantasy, provides connection with perspective--an understanding that is sometimes hard to achieve through depression, or grief, or any number of other mental health obstacles.
Mental health challenges can be lonely; fandoms mean feeling less alone. The support they give IRL, producing a group of like-minded individuals with a common interest and frame of reference, yields a community that is strong in its passion and its togetherness. Fans might not be superheroes themselves, but the collective strength that comes from fandoms can help to ward off-- or even slay-- some terrifying personal demons and monsters.