Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grudgement Day: Con-Man

I'm trying to think what my first Comic Convention experience was, I believe it was a small show in my hometown at a local hotel meeting room or Elks Lodge.  I must have been in middle school because my dad took me and patiently accompanied me as I checked out the tables full of back issues.  There were a few artists set up for meeting fans but I didn't know who the heck they were yet.  I picked up a short stack of comics and happily went on my way.  The regular flea market and toy shows at the Fair Grounds always had comics for sale but they weren't the main focus.  The Mid-Ohio Con in Easton was a decent sized show at the Hilton, I hear they moved to a bigger venue then were acquired by Wizard World in 2010.  A little history shows that Mid-Ohio Con used to be held in my hometown in the early 80's complete with guests like John Bryne, Frank Miller, Stan Lee and Kevin Eastman!  In 2004, my friends and I attended our first major show, Wizard World Chicago.  Mind you, this was when Wizard was still a magazine and not some company that randomly ran conventions and held stake in a now defunct MMA league.  My buddies and I drove from Ohio to Chi-Town, riding the train, eating pizza and breaking door frames in our hotel with a chin up bar (yup, I was working out on any schedule in any situation even back then).

Wizard World Chicago was a lot of fun.  The floor seemed pretty big and I picked up all kinds of good swag like a Jack Kirby Captain America trash can, lots of comics, probably a bust or two and then we saw him, mother fucking Rob Liefeld had a table and was doing sketches.  I don't recall programming being much in those days at WWC so we plopped down in Liefeld's line to get an original piece of art.  Well, we learned the hard way that a guy can only sketch so many sketches in an hour and we were way back in line.  We ended up getting some comics signed and chit chatting with the former Marvel superstar artist and creator of X-Force turned co-founder of Image Comics.  Since we weren't coming back the next day, Liefeld told us to e-mail him and he'd send us something.  10 years later and I'm still waiting.  Plus he was a dick on Twitter and friends with a negative neckbeard movie "critic" so my days of supporting him are long gone.  Unlike Jim Lee who is just the coolest, most random guy you could ask for in the industry.  He brought Mrs. Fields cookies to the audience one time, changes up his panel focus every time and generally loves to spread the gospel of comic books.

Today, Wizard Magazine is no more but Wizard World Conventions are EVERYWHERE.  Literally.  There are 25 shows across the country with a focus on celebrity signings, cast reunions and of course, comic book writers and artists.  It's where Pop Culture comes to life says their website and what gets the most real estate on said site?  The revolving list of celebrities you can pay to meet.  A guy from the Harry Potter movies, someone from a 90's TV show, a Star Trek cast member or 7, etc.  There's Admission then there's VIP Admission so you can bypass lines, hobnob with guests and get the best seating at panels for an upcharge.  What's wrong with all of that?  Technically nothing, more comic conventions are a good thing.  I travel to 8-10 shows a year but haven't been to a Wizard World since Chicago.  These are no longer comic book conventions, they're pop culture conventions.  Having attended shows big and small, happy and sad, I consider shows like Wizard World and Salt Lake City new-age types with their focus on celebrities to bring casual fans in then include comics, artist alleys and special events.  It's a nice mix for the most part as you can go see one of your favorite actors at a spotlight panel then look around the floor for comics and swag.  Artist Alley is always fun and I've met a couple of cool peeps who get to make a living doing what they love.  Most of the time they're selling personal takes on beloved genre movies and TV titles rather than hocking their own comic book or creations though.

So what's the point of all of this?  I dunno, I just feel like all this prodding of fans for more and more dinero is not good for the convention scene and why Comic-Con International's San Diego and Wonder Con remain by far the greatest example of a show.  Why?  Because they're a celebration of the popular arts.  They produce 3 solid shows a year and aren't trying to take over the world. They're non-profits but provide the absolute best experience one could ask for, as long as you're ready for the crowds and lines.  Once inside, your ticket grants you access to every event and can keep you busy from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM if you've got the energy.  No Paid Events, no Additional Ticket required, none of that.  Wizard World and SLCC are businesses out to make money and are now using their size to pummel fans and competition alike.  For example, fan clubs used to get free tables at WW shows to boost awareness and raise money for charity but now they have to shell out hundreds of dollars just to get a space.  Kind of tough when you're not there to sell merchandise.  Then there's the cases of Wizard World moving into new territory in what seems like a bid to dominate the local scene, which they deny.  Take for example Minneapolis, Minnesota where Wizard World scheduled their show two weeks before long running local non-profit SpringCon after failing to acquire the brand.  However, SpringCon claims the beef gave them a boost in public profile, similar to what Salt Lake received when San Diego sued them.

But doesn't the abundance of shows give more awareness to the peeps over in Artist Alley?  Yes, I'm not saying WW is evil or should hold less shows, I just wish we got more variety.  I fear we're getting into cookie cutter conventions here so one show will be like any other just in a different town.  The same celebs tour the country at these shows, selling the same things, telling the same stories.  More crowds for celebs means more foot traffic for Artists but when you're making the lions share of profits from selling prints, magnets and stickers based on someone else's ideas, I figure you might get tired of it, like a talented band who can only book gigs doing covers of well known groups because no one will pay them to play their own material.  Whereas Comic-Con boasts over 1,000 panels with 100's of guests/speakers from fans to professionals covering just about every topic known to man like writing, drawing, painting, collaborating, social themes, legal advice and how-to, Wizard Shows maybe eek out a few dozen panels, most of them spotlights on well known celebs or artists. 

Oh well, maybe this new abundance of shows will help ease the crowds in San Diego.  With an attendance cap and Hollywood interest waning, it'll be nice for us die-hards if there's a few less people cramming the aisles.  I'd like to see specific subject shows grow like the He-Man/She-Ra Power-Con (which couldn't make it in New York), Bot-Con, G.I. Joe Con, Austin's Mondo Con and am looking forward to Los Angeles' latest, Comic Arts Los Angeles, a free event to promote the world of comic books, graphic novels and the creators behind them.

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