On ball-jointed dolls and the dream of a geek supercontinent

On ball-jointed dolls and the dream of a geek supercontinent

So this is what a ball-jointed doll is.

A ball-jointed doll is a doll that has balls in its joints. This may seem obvious at first, but the more you think about it, the more it seems absurd. How does the doll do anything but flop all over with balls in its joints? (Answer: There are strings inside that can be pulled taut, so the doll can “snap” between positions.) What could possibly be different about this sort of doll from the sorts of dolls you might be used to? (Answer: These sorts of dolls allow for almost infinite customization once you really know what you’re doing, in a way that’s harder to do with more traditional types of dolls.) And what would you do with these dolls once you had enough of them? (Answer: Mostly pose them to make for nice displays, but there’s plenty of time to make outfits for the dolls, or to buy new doll forms and turn them into new companions for the already present dolls.)

Comic-Con has a really strange hierarchy of what’s “acceptable.” That’s not just true of Comic-Con, of course. It’s true of fandom and humanity in general. But there’s very much this sense that certain entertainments at Comic-Con are “cool” and certain others aren’t. All you have to do is think back a couple of years to the kid carrying around the Twilight ruined Comic-Con” sign to realize that as much as the fandom attending the show purports to be open and accepting, there’s still a deeply entrenched stigma in favor of certain forms of entertainment and against others. Nobody’s really sure how to deal with the stuff that wanders too far afield, and all too often, these sorts of things are tossed aside in weak jokes about all of the weird stuff you can see at Comic-Con.

Oftentimes, the Ball-Jointed Dolls Collectors Panel has been the subject of those jokes. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all of these jokes are meant to be malicious, not at all. For the most part, these jokes center on the basic idea that, man, you can find anything at Comic-Con, because the vast majority of people aren’t going to know what a ball-jointed doll is. (I certainly didn’t.) But every so often, you’ll hear an edge, a sense that this panel doesn’t “belong.” But who determines that sort of thing at a convention that was started to attempt to bring prominence to art that was always regarded as “outsider” to begin with? During her presentation, Robin, the woman running the BJD panel, says that she’s run into some people within fandom who are unsettled by her dolls—“tinies,” she calls them—and she just shrugs it off. That’s just the way some people are. If something makes you happy, why would you care what other people think?

Isn’t that all it, though? So many of the people attending Comic-Con are people who spent long childhoods and adolescences trying to fit in with the majority, even as their interests skewed more toward the minority. So many nerd-ish pursuits promise both mastery—over tiny facsimiles of the world as it is and as we would like it to be—and untapped power, trapped just inside your rib cage, if only you knew the magic words that would unlock it. But with the rise of events like Comic-Con and the fact that superhero movies (and other geeky flicks) have conquered the box office, fandom finds itself in a place it doesn’t really understand: a place of uneasy cultural dominance.

It’s become sort of cliché to say that the eternal war between jocks and nerds is over, and the nerds won, but it seems increasingly true. We all live in a world where technological innovation has made it possible to drill down into the things you’re interested in, where everybody can be exactly as geeky as they like about any topic they could ever think of. It’s a world where communities as strong as any ever formed are built in virtual spaces, and it’s a world where communication is key. Bullying is still an issue, but there are so many more outlets now if you’re looking to escape an unpleasant high school existence. Comic-Con was something started by a couple hundred people in a hotel ballroom, and it’s grown into this dominant event on pop culture’s social calendar. So the longer the convention is up and running, the more it drills down, the more it splinters off into smaller and smaller segments. And that’s where the sorts of things that cause people to say, “What the hell is that?” come in, things like the BJD group or the Little Lulu fan club.

When I sit in on the BJD session, however, I realize just how cool this sort of thing can be. It’s not the sort of thing I’m ever going to go in for—it’s apparently a hobby that can get fairly expensive, and I already have far too many of those—but the lineup of dolls up on the front platform features a surprisingly wide variety of figures and types. There’s a note-perfect Jack Sparrow, made by a woman named Pam who takes commissions online and then spends months upon months bringing those commissions to life. (Jack took her 10 months.) There’s another doll who’s been outfitted to look like Merida from Pixar’s new movie Brave. And there are strange, fantastical creatures that seem to have stepped right out of the pages of some unknown storybook.

For the most part, these dolls are entirely the creations of their owners. Oh, sure, they’ll buy custom-made outfits or buy certain parts, and it’s rare for anyone to cast their own doll molds, instead ordering the basic frame a doll will be built upon online. But the dolls that take shape upon those frames are all springing forth, fully formed from the imaginations of the people who bought them. The customization doesn’t stop there. A man named Bruce, who runs a meetup for BJD collectors in San Diego, builds one-third scale dioramas for those meetups, and the collectors gather and place their dolls in the diorama. (The next meetup, in November, has a Wild West theme.) At one point, a panelist describes the dolls as little friends, and instead of seeming odd, it seems completely natural. Of course the dolls are friends. In many ways, they’re extensions of the people who made them, creative expressions of whatever was on their mind at the time.

This is something I can get behind. If you’ve read these reports for any length of time, you’ll know that creative people, those who find some way to express what they’re thinking, are my folks. I love somebody who can take a blank canvas or a big hunk of clay or a doll form that has yet to be made to look human, then turn that into something beautiful and artistic. There’s no way I could do half the stuff the BJD collectors do almost as a matter of course, and sitting in the room makes me feel almost a little guilty, as if I’m intruding on a private ceremony without anyone knowing. There’s a raffle held for various prizes—including some pretty great doll boots and a steampunk outfit set—and I’m briefly embarrassed by the thought that I might accidentally win a prize. (The room is so uncrowded that it’s a distinct possibility.) If that happened, the jig would be up. I’d have to give it away, because it would be of less use to me than anybody else in the room. I just want to observe, to see the evident joy these people get as they talk about their dolls, to listen as they let out an excited gasp at the sight of the raffle prizes. I don’t want to get in the way or intrude on something borderline sacred.

When I talk to Robin and Bruce after the panel, when time has been set aside for the attendees to snap photos of the dolls and ask those more experienced in collecting for advice, both tell me that meetups within the BJD collector community are fairly frequent. There’s also a thriving web presence, with sites like Den Of Angels, where discussion of the dolls and their customization can get heated. (There’s some discussion of how Den Of Angels is too closed off to members of other doll communities, and that idea that sometimes, fandoms can be strange about other fandoms rears its ugly head again.) But no matter how much the web and the meetups make the BJD collector community feel like a constant presence, it’s not, not really. The world is naturally designed to cut people who get passionate about things off into tiny islands, on which it can be all too easy to feel like the only person who lives there. Events like those meetups and places like those websites are necessary to bring the islands together into a continent from time to time, to remind yourself that there are other people who love what you do and would love nothing more than to sit and talk about it with you for hours on end.

That’s why events like Comic-Con endure, why they matter, no matter how big they get or how much Hollywood tries to turn them into elaborate dog-and-pony shows. When I have dinner with my friend Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly Saturday night, he tells me how when you’re in Hall H, there’s this excitement that’s easy to get caught up in, something that comes along and carries you in its tide and washes you up on the other shore, giddy at what you just saw. It doesn’t matter what the movie is. It doesn’t matter if the footage is any good. Just being gathered with that many people who care about what you care about is the high, is the point. It becomes a kind of church, a place where everybody lifts their eyes to the sky and, for one second, gets to focus in on the same thing. It might seem silly to friends and family, but here, it’s the only way of doing business.

It’s all too easy to hijack that sacred moment, though, to take something that’s beautiful and pure and so, so human and make it into a marketing tool. Movie studios and TV networks know exactly how to do this. They’ve been doing it for decades, and they’re experts at leaving the energy ping-ponging around the inside of Hall H or Ballroom 20 until it feels like nothing else in the world. And those sorts of panels are fun—to this day, one of the best things that’s happened to me at Comic-Con is a panel I attended for Doctor Who the first year I went, at which David Tennant lit up the crowd like he was Mick Jagger or something. But there’s also something stage-managed and manipulative about them. It’s all about the screens giving out the Word, and the fans receiving it, not about them giving it back.

For an instant, it becomes ever more clear why those evangelists have set up camp outside the convention center all weekend long. We’ve taken the language and reverence of religion and turned it into something else. Whether that’s entirely healthy is a question I’m not qualified to answer. But there is no doubt when you’re sitting in Hall H. Everything is carefully made to stimulate you in a certain fashion, and when the moment comes, it’s easy to give in to rapture. The media coverage of the event strikes me as ever sillier, simply because everything is so strenuously created to provoke the desired reaction. And when you’re sitting in a crowd of nearly 7,000, all of whom are raising their voices in joy at what they’ve just seen, it’s hard not to be affected by that. It’s an ocean to pour your hope into, a place where pop culture really can save.

But that’s present in room 32AB, too, where the BJD collectors are talking back and forth and snapping photos of their respective dolls. The more I talk to them, the more I’m impressed by the sheer amount of work they put into the little figurines, and the more I realize just how happy they all seem. Here, for two hours, they’re among their people, and as I watch two women carefully put their dolls back in carrying cases, I’m struck by how this is another kind of rapture, but one that’s a conversation between the fans and what they love. There are no dolls unless these people put the effort into them, and that explains the bristling that occurs when Robin talks about “bootlegging,” dolls made at half the cost that are cheap knockoffs of other molds. At their best, these dolls are unique, right down to the frame. But the more people that get into the scene, the more there’s a demand for cheap, mass-marketable product. As always happens with fandom: Eventually, somebody realizes how much money remains to be made, and everything gets bigger and bigger. You can’t stop the rock from rolling downhill.

Will that happen to the BJD community? It’s hard to say. At one point, I get to hold one of the little dolls—it’s one that’s “used to being handled,” Robin says—and there’s something satisfying about hearing the little pop that comes when the joints are bent into new positions. It’s easy to see how this could be turned into another way to send fans of other properties something that would remind them of the film, book, or TV show they love. (When I hear a list of Pam’s commissions, they’re almost all of film characters, including, oddly, Tom Selleck’s character in Quigley Down Under.) On the one hand, this all seems like so much work for a neophyte. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a world where pre-made dolls of Katniss Everdeen and Clark Kent are down there on the show floor, ready to be snatched up for a reasonable price. And the convention is already hurting the BJD collectors panel. When it started in 2005, it was still possible for those who wanted to attend to just get Sunday passes (and get them the day of). Now, it’s so hard to get tickets that many BJD collectors don’t even bother. The con gets bigger and bigger, and while it keeps all of its old selves within it, they become less and less the focus.

When I go up to talk to Robin, there’s an instant where I tell her who I am and what I’m doing there, and I can see this instant of something intangible race across her eyes. In that instant, I’m embarrassed to have been there, to have sat in on something that is so clearly so important to these people. And I see the jokes and the questions of, “What’s a ball-jointed doll?” and the easy laughs and the fear that it would be so easy to just make this article some sort of, “Can you believe what these people get up to at Comic-Con?” snark-fest. It’s all there, but she plunges on ahead, and we talk, and it’s great. And what I don’t say—what I should have said—is that I know what she’s probably afraid of, but there’s no reason to be. I play Dungeons & Dragons and read crappy sci-fi novels and love Doctor Who. I’ve got all these little geek islands I live on, and when I come to a place like this, it feels good to walk across bridges to other ones. Comic-Con may be big and unwieldy and ultimately pointless, but it’s also continental drift in reverse, bringing all of the pieces back together toward Pangaea.