On the floor at the Middle East’s first Comic Con

t’s never really been easy to be a nerd. Fans of cars and sports have never had much of a hard time, but those who choose the caped route might find themselves hiding the latest issue of Avengers away in their locker for fear of ridicule. When their interests are in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, and their heroes are Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, it is easy for many kids out there to feel like they are the only ones. 

Comic Book Conventions were invented for a simple reason: to give passionate people the chance to stop feeling ashamed and embrace their passion with thousands just like them. The conventions, or Comic Cons as they are affectionately known, have grown from places for fans to dress up and talk about their favorite characters to the epicenters of all things off-beat, where multiple industries celebrate their biggest successes and unveil future projects across various media.

This weekend, comic book fans in the region got their prayers answered: The first annual Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) arrived in the UAE. Organized by ExtraCake PR, the conference found a beautiful location at the Dubai International Marine Club to spread out over 100 artists, actors, merchants, publishers and cosplayers across two floors, three tents and a large outdoor stage.

But after the initial excitement of hearing that a Comic Con finally has come to the Middle East, it was easy for many to be skeptical. After all, not everything in Dubai has been named properly. Sure, there might be a yearly “Jazz” Festival, but you’ll hear much more Jason Mraz than Wynton Marsalis. So why would this be any different?

But rest assured, the event exceeded all but the wildest of expectations. 

From the moment I walked in, it was clear that this is something that had been sorely missed from the region. It was rare to see a person not wearing some sort of badge of nerd honor—a Hulk t-shirt, a Naruto headband, or a Walking Dead messenger bag. But this wasn’t just a place for stereotypical pimple-faced mouth breathers, this was a place for the entire family, where Batman could push sleeping baby Spider-man in his stroller.

“I personally feel it’s really important,” said Qias Sedki, the Emirati Manga Creator of the first Arabic manga titled The Gold Ring. “If you look around, you’ll find all walks of life. You’ll find little kids, you’ll find fanatics, you’ll find their parents, and you might even find their grandparents. It really is a family environment and I think that’s what’s needed to further this industry.”

And there truly was something for everyone. Fans of films such as “Indiana Jones” and “The Lord of the Rings” could get a photograph with John Rhys-Davies, better known as Gimli the Dwarf. Girls could swoon over Game of Thrones’ Khal Drogo, Jason Momoa. Young costumed children could participate in a dance competition on stage in front of their camera-happy parents.

Those bold enough to transform themselves into their favorite characters, better known as Cosplayers, could walk around all day as virtual celebrities. Art fans could speak with professionals, buying their art or just getting some free tips on how to further their own careers. Gamers could game with Mario himself. Humor fans could enjoy Emirati stand up comedians MC the event, spouting off one liners as fast as speeding bullets. Fans could interact with comic publishers and browse through extensive selections of books at a discount.

“Well honestly I thought it would be taken over completely by video games and anime,” said Mo, a young Lebanese fan living in Dubai. “Surprisingly though, it isn’t. There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t expect to see over here, the kind of stuff you’d see at a small corner comic book shop in San Diego!”

 “I think it’s been far more successful than even the organizers anticipated,” said Sedki. “I’ve seen people from Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. A lot of people I will actually ask, ‘Are you here for the event?’ and they say, ‘Yes!’ People are willing to hop in a plane and travel just for this.”

Even Index Wipvasutti, comic book and manga buyer for Dubai’s biggest book store Kinokuniya, was surprised. “This is quite amazing! I never thought this Comic Con would be so popular in this region.”

But most successful, besides the organization and myriad interests covered extensively, was the atmosphere. This was a place where people felt liberated. I found myself talking to strangers a lot more easily. People were laughing about one another’s costumes and sitting at tables with people they didn’t know and laughing as friends minutes later. It was as if they had discovered that they weren’t the only nerds in the world. There were many, and they had found each other.

And according to Sedki, that’s a very good thing. “I think the more people understand the ins and outs of it, the more people see the passion, the more you’ll start seeing better acceptance of all these things. There [have been] so many times when I’ve had to tell people that manga is not mangoes, and I’m hoping with time I’m not going to have to explain that anymore.”