In the weeks leading up to the 2009 Chicago Comic-Con (a convention formerly known as Wizard World Chicago and still run by Wizard Entertainment), the talk surrounding the event fell almost entirely into the “doom and gloom” category. Critics and bloggers online continually pointed to the lack of booths from either DC or Marvel Comics on the show floor, the close proximity of the show to Comic-Con International in San Diego, the impending rivalry coming to the region in the form of Reed Exhibitions’ C2E2 show in 2010, and a general sense that Wizard has become a beleaguered business as evidence that this year’s Chicago show would be at best a lame duck con and at worst a total failure.
Coming out of the weekend, however, it appears that when it came to drawing comics fans to the Rosemont-based show none of the problems really mattered — at least for this year.
Carrying the look and feel of a traditional comics-driven event, Chicago Comic-Con saw healthy crowds on all three of its full show days. While the convention doesn’t hold a candle to the number of people that flock to the San Diego convention it once was thought as a direct rival to, Chicago still remains one of the biggest shows in America, with a cross section of fans from casual readers and families to hardcore fanboys and cosplayers. For a complete rundown of the show’s flavor and feel from an attendees point of view, be sure to check out ROBOT 6’s day-by-day con coverage (Friday, Saturday. Sunday).
From a exhibitor and programming perspective, the Chicago show didn’t carry quite the star power it has in years past, but creators in Artists Alley reported full lines and brisk business while sci-fi celebrity staples like “Battlestar Galactica’s” Edward James Olmos and “Superman’s” Margot Kidder seemed to do fine in the signing and smiling department. Panels were often very full without reaching critical “standing room only” status, something that helped the show across a few very hot days where young fans attending to see cast members from the hit “Twilight” series of films would have to lineup single file outside.
In a numbers sense, several Wizard staffers expressed to CBR that attendance was up from last year’s show, though no specific numbers could be offered. On Sunday afternoon, Wizard owner Gareb Shamus told CBR, “The show was phenomenal. This was a banner year for us. We had record floor space and attendance. It’s really been an incredible experience that we’ve been able to provide people this year.”
Asked whether or not the absence of companies like DC and Marvel had an impact on whether he considered the show a success, Shamus said, “For us, the fans always have a great time at our show. Every year, there’s a lot of different companies that come in. Some companies drop out. For us, we make sure that we put on a compelling event for our fans. This year, they had an awesome show, they came out in record numbers, and they’re going to be coming out in record numbers again next year. Our shows are open to everybody. We welcome everybody at our events, but we’re going to make sure we always put on a great show that people love.”
Shamus also spoke as to the future prospects of both the Chicago show and his company as a whole. With stiff competition expected from C2E2 when it lands in April of next year, the Wizard head still expected his Chicago show to remain healthy for many years to come in its August spot on the con schedule. “It’s the culmination of a lot of work. We really reconfigured the company in a lot of ways, and people now are just starting to see the results of a lot of the efforts we’re putting into building the company – not only in the acquisitions that we’ve done but also in bringing in a lot of talented people into the company,” Shamus said. “This show and the Philly show were kind of a culmination of what a lot of people are literally just starting to see from our company. We have a lot more acquisitions and opportunities coming our way that we haven’t announced yet that we think are going to blow people away. This is only the beginning of the new, incredible, great things we’re working on here at Wizard.”
One of the points that seemed to turn a negative into a positive for many exhibitors on the show floor was the absence of big name publishers. Chicago comics retail fixture Jamie Graham, co-owner of the Graham Cracker Comics chain, told CBR, “We’ve found that when there’s no publishers at these shows, they come to us to spend all their money. If they’re spending all their time getting exclusives and stuff, they don’t spend time with us. Well, now they’re spending time with us, and I’m super happy. Everyone is saying, ‘Oh! No Marvel and DC! The show is going to die!’ It doesn’t work that way. People are coming to see us, they’re coming to see the artists, and they’re coming to see the stars. They’re not coming to see the publishers, which is not to say we don’t want them. But if you’re talking about side effects from not having them, people are still coming. We still want the publishers, but they’re not the pull. They’re not the focus.”
In comparing Chicago Comic-Con to Comic-Con International, Graham said that trying to judge the success of one against the other would always be a bit of an apples to oranges type of situation, and while as a retailer his level of success is much more based around who buys comics on the floor, for a show traditionally built upon local fans and other Midwestern comics readers offering that retail base makes for success. “This is a cheaper show. It’s a friendlier show,” he said. “If these people could go to San Diego, they would – just to see the glitz and the glamour. But they can’t. And when they come, they want to buy stuff. This is a fan favorite show. This show, per capita of comic book dealers is twice the size as San Diego. Now, San Diego has its own kind of situation, which is great too, but this is where you can bring your dollar books or your premium materials. There’s something here for everybody. San Diego has something for everybody too, minus the economic part.”
As for Reed’s C2E2 show, Graham said he will be exhibiting there, though he doesn’t see it having as much impact on how Wizard’s futures lie in a certain sense. “I think in terms of business, you have to say, ‘There’s a show in your town. You’re going to do it.’ It has nothing to do with personalities, nothing to do with ‘Are you loyal to one or the other?’ It’s simply a matter of availability to make money. For a lot of guys here, this is a sideline. For some others, this is a full time job. So of course they want the outlet. That’s what we’re looking for, not for anything else.”
Utimately, while this year’s Chicago Comic-Con seemed to be a very successful show by all accounts, moving forward all eyes will be on the Reed/Wizard rivalry. Already, reports are coming out on whether or not Wizard will be able to continually brand their show a “Comic-Con” while Reed continues to tout it’s strong partnerships with Marvel and DC for C2E2. While this summer’s Chicago show remained strong as a solo entity, after this weekend the continuing question will be whether or not the comics reading public of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and the surrounding area will shell out the money to attend two conventions a year, whether they carry one kind of programming or whether fall on either side of the summer.
While the critics continue to speculate on the future. CBR looks back at some of the creative faces of the show and how they’re Chicago Comic-Con went this year.
Aspen’s Frank Mastromauro
One year after the tragic loss of company founder and superstar comics artist Michael Turner, Aspen MLT soldiers on with a slate of new releases on tap for the end of the year and the beginning of 2010. “This year for us in particular was more a revitalization year for Aspen,” company president Frank Mastromauro told CBR. “Since Mike passed away last year, it was tough, and a lot of people were like, ‘Well, are they going to go on? What’s going to happen?’ It took us a while to get things back on track, but I wanted to show that we’re as good and as strong as ever. Mike’s always going to be with us, and this year we were ecstatic to have the fans here in droves for a great show. It met and exceeded my expectations.”
Mastromauro seemed excited about Aspen’s future prospects as the studio system the publisher runs on allows for many projects to launch out of the core Aspen talent roster. “It was always the goal to cultivate from within. J.T. Krul, who’s been with us for years, has a creator-owned book coming out within the next six to eight months called ‘Mine Field.’ ‘Executive Assistant Irism’ which Mike was involved with at the conception, has been coming out, and we have big plans in store for that book as well. Myself and Vince [Hernandez] have ‘Dellec,’ which premiered at Comic-Con [in San Diego] and it’s great. We have two more new properties coming out next year. The whole goal was always to have ‘Fathom’ and ‘Soulfire’ be the flagship, build those universes as we have but it’s not as though we could just have those two books.”
“Final Crisis” artist J.G. Jones kept a crowded sketch line all weekend in Artists Alley, but in between drawings of characters like Batwoman, the artist took a moment to talk about the finale of “Final Crisis” series including his drawing of Batman’s death. “I claimed that. That’s the whole reason I agreed to do ‘Final Crisis’ in the first place was so I could kill Batman. I want to be remembered as ‘The Man Who Killed Batman,'” laughed Jones, noting that while he ultimately didn’t draw every page in the series, he felt proud of the design contributions he made to the DCU. “I went over to Scotland and sat down with Grant for a few days and just designed and designed and played and read and watched bad television. I really like that big crazy Omega in the middle of [Darkseid’s] chest.
“It’s a lot of fun for me to do design work. It’s not so laborious, and you can think and play and have fun, try a lot of different things. You’re not feeling like it’s the end of the world if you don’t get your marks right and you draw a bad head or something. It’s more like playing, so I really enjoy it.”
As for his future work, Jones explained, “I’m going to be pretty much a cover artist for DC for right now, and we’re still talking about what else I can do. And what little spare time I have left I’m going to spend on finishing up the writing of a graphic novel that I’m going to start drawing sometime this year. I’m trying to flex those writing muscles, which is a lot of fun. I don’t even want to draw on the days I’m writing. I’m just having a ball.”
Artist Shane Davis spent a lot of his weekend signing and sketching around his contributions to DC’s “Blackest Night” event, joking that when asked by a fan to draw the Black Lantern version of Batman, “I didn’t even know what he looked like.” The artist is looking forward to his upcoming “Blackest Night: Superman” cover work, including one image that serves as a kind of homage to Alan Davis’ classic cover to “Uncanny X-Men” #213. “I was like, ‘I want that ‘Clash of the Titans’ feeling, but I can do more with it,” Davis said of the image, which pairs Superman and the zombified version of his Earth-2 counterpart. “Instead of just claws and face, I get ‘Clash of the Titans’ literally. That was the theme where the whole world could break apart if these two fought.”
Davis is also proud of his design work on the Red Lanterns of the series, saying, “It’s weird. I think it was [Geoff] Johns in San Diego who said, ‘We’re going to do a Dex-Starr fight with Krypto.’ And I was just, ‘Wow!’ It’s interesting because you kind of see that the designs were good. That’s how you can tell if a design works, if somebody else draws the characters and they kind of pop off the page. I was looking at all the Lanterns and thinking, ‘This is really cool,’ and then I got to the Red Lanterns and I thought they popped. At least I applied good design ideas. I switched up the characters to make sure they were different types, even throwing in the cat. So I was trying not to repeat the same model. It’s kind of like Star Wars aliens. You want to be able to follow the character and his actions and how he moves. Sometimes I wish I did more exotic aliens, but then you run the risk of it maybe confusing someone.”
Up next for Shane Davis is a secret project for DC that the artist is already deep into penciling. “I’m working on a project with a really great writer and great people at DC I’m working with. I’m working with Dan DiDio pretty closely. Dan’s been really great, and he has a crazy, crazy amount of faith in me. It’s probably one of the biggest things I’ll ever work on, which is kind of scary for me. I’m a little nervous about what people are going to say when they see it.”
Jai Nitz and Jeff Katz
Proving they had much more in common than monosyllabic names that end in “tz,” writer Jai Nitz and American Original head Jeff Katz caught up in Artists Alley, jawing about Kansas sports and comic books. “The benefit to these sort of events is to network with talent and continue to talk about what we’re about,” said Katz. “At the same time, you can deal with people at a personal level in the way you can’t at San Diego. San Diego to me was all about servicing the panel and the party [I threw at the Hard Rock.] I had no chance to do real talent socializing, here is a bigger chance to go out, take a breath and spend time with people.”
Nitz took a moment to explain how his just-announced “Project Superpowers” spinoff miniseries “The Ghost” came together. “The door got opened for me because of Phil Hester, who’s my mentor. He got me hooked up with Nick and Joe [at Dynamite] and they said, ‘We want to do another set of spin-off titles,” Nitz said. “‘We’re going to give you a little bit of the stage. What can you do?’ I gave them my pitch and everybody really liked it. Alex [Ross] responded to it really well. It’s a guy that used to pal around with superheroes [but he] didn’t have superpowers. It’s like the Blackhawks or whoever who just fly planes and are around Superman and the Specter and these guys that do have superpowers. Then when you get stuck with all of them in Pandora’s Box and come out with superpowers, you have to say, ‘I used to be the underdog, and now I’m Babe Ruth. I don’t have that chip on my shoulder where I need to prove myself. I’ve got all these powers, now what do I do with them?'”
The writer also has a slate of other series on tap for the near future. “I’m doing a Spider-Man story at Marvel and some work for ‘2000 A.D.’ which was one of the coolest things from San Diego,” he said, adding that hanging with artist Chris Weston led to the work with the venerable Brit magazine. “I emailed these guys in Britain and said, ‘Here’s who I am. Here’s what I do. Here’s my idea.’ And they said, ‘You’re hired.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, I work in American comics so this is supposed to be much harder than what you just made it!’
Katz added that when his American Original comic books hit late this year, the first titles will be the reprint of “Blastosaurus” and a new “Blastosaurus” coming right after. “That’s the idea. The early ‘Blasto’ we can collect at an inexpensive level for people, get it established [with Darick Robertson] doing a cover for it. But it’s really slow and steady. In a shrinking marketplace, there’s no reason to be dropping books on top of each other. It’s my biggest fear, quite honestly.”
In between asking Jerry “The King” Lawler about the true story behind the Andy Kaufman beef immortalized in “Man On The Moon,” “X-Force” artist Mike Choi sketched for fans and waxed philosophical about the state of the Chicago show. “Honestly, I think a couple people here have pointed out that the lack of the big exhibitors – as much as I love seeing the DC booth, the Marvel booth, the Top Cow booth and all of them – drove a lot of people to Artists Alley. I got a chance to meet a lot of fans. Every day since Thursday has been crazy with people buying sketches and prints. All in all, it’s been a really great con, which is really cool,” Choi said.
As for upcoming work, Choi still has plans to contribute to “X-Force,” though artist Clayton Crain will draw the tie-in issues of the upcoming “Necrosha” crossover, and Choi can’t wait for more work from writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost. “My current book is with Craig and Chris, and I know pretty much what my next project is going to be. But with Craig and Chris, we have a pretty good relationship. That comes from us being able to trust each other, and I love their scripts. I think that level of trust and appreciation is getting better and better. I plan on working with those guys for the entirety of my career if I’m so lucky.”
In the meantime, Choi and his colorist and fiance Sonia Oback are busy planning their wedding around their growing comics careers. “Currently the date is October 10, 2010. Unfortunately, that date falls right in during the New York Comic Con,” Choi said. “I keep telling myself it’s a way to separate the people who would come to our wedding rather than a convention. But honestly, I’m trying to find a way to be like, ‘Is there a way I can attend on Saturday and still make my wedding on Sunday?’ Because I love conventions.”
Mike Dolce – co-writer of Image/Shadowline’s new “Descendent” series – tried juggling plugging his book and sketching for fans when CBR stopped by his table, saying, “It helps to have Jim Valentino, who’s been in the business for 25 years .Every once in a while Jim will chime in with, ‘Hey, by the way, maybe this will help.’ Just coming in with something nice and sweet. It also helps to have the name recognition that Image has because you appear to be more legitimate. I’ve been in self-publishing for three years. While it’s been great, it’s been tough building up a fanbase. Then you drop an Image book, and you’ve got a built-in fanbase.”
Dolce said of “Descendent,” “If the response is good, we’ll keep making them. Two years ago, the numbers would have been completely different. So three or four-issue arcs are a great way to get people involved. You keep putting out a new #1, and people will keep coming back.”
The artist behind Oni Press’ hit ongoing “Wasteland” was on hand all weekend with copies of the recently released 25th issue of the series, the first ever done in full color. “About ten months ago, [Oni and writer Antony Johnston] said, ‘If we can make it work, we were thinking about doing a color issue for #25’ and I said, ‘Of course. Yes,'” recalled Mitten. “Then I started thinking that if we’re going to do it in color, let’s make it a little more special than me just coloring my line art. It was brought to me as a possibility of maybe we do it/maybe we can’t .I think they just left me to draw thinking, ‘Let’s test him to see if he’s interested.'”
The process of creating the issue prompted Mitten to rethink how he viewed the series as a whole. “It was so interesting to see what colors came out. In your brain, you’re kind of thinking, ‘Okay, this is the color of this jacket’ or whatever, but then as your painting or coloring on screen, you start to think, ‘That actually works a lot better as this color.’ So it almost colored itself in terms of the tone of it, which is nice. But it was one of those things where it was a lot of fun to change up because I was getting – not burned out – but by the time I finished #24, I was ready to do something not pen and ink.”
And while the artist hopes for more color issues in “Wasteland’s” future, for now he’s back on the regular beat drawing the next arc of the series, which he promises will hit comic shops a bit more quickly than the anniversary issue did.
Sean McKeever kicked it old school at Chicago Comic-Con, plying his wares at an Artists Alley table for the first time in a while. “It’s something I’ve gotten used to, and when I started doing books at Marvel, it wasn’t always something that was in the public consciousness, so I would buy my own copies at retail, and I had a re-sale license, and I’d sell the books. I’d kind of gotten out of that, but at this show I drove up so I was able to bring some books along and sell while I’m here. Otherwise, when I’m sitting here in Artists Alley, and I have nothing to sell I look even lonelier.”
“I’ve had a lot of people come by with their books and a lot of interest in ‘Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane’ still which is very heartwarming for me,” the writer added, noting how he’s excited to see reactions to his new “Nomad” series out from Marvel on September 9. “I’ll be really interested in seeing how many Cap fans are interested in a spinoff like that. And I just want to get some fan reactions out of something new I’m doing. I’ve got a couple deals close to being done at other publishers, a couple small things coming out from Marvel this year and a couple of pitches into Dan Didio at DC.”
One of a number of Kansas City area creators at the show, “Ghost Rider” and “Scalped” scribe Jason Aaron continued his fight through a long con season. “I just recovered from San Diego two days ago, just in time to turn right around and come here,” he laughed. “It’s been great and really busy. This is different in that I’m actually sitting at a table where at San Diego I’m just wandering around in a daze. Here I’m able to sit and meet tons of fans.”
While the writer has been making his bones for a few years by keeping steady on his Vertigo series “Scalped” while picking up a few short superhero stints at Marvel here and there, he said, “Going forward from now it’ll be a little different in that I’ll also be doing long term stories for the superhero stuff.” His plan involves long runs on the new “Wolverine: Wearpon X” and four arcs on the new “PunisherMAX” with artist Steve Dillon. “I knew coming onto it that I couldn’t just try to do Garth stories, that would be a recipe for disaster. So I switched it up, and we’re doing a long story – four arcs that fit together to tell one story. And we’re bringing in MAX versions of Kingpin and Bullseye. It’s still the same tone and kind of stories people are used to from Garth’s run, but we needed to tweak it and make it something more than me trying to be Garth.”
In a big weekend for the G.I. Joe franchise, artist Robert Atkins sold Joe-themed sketchbooks from his table and drew an awful lot of Snake-Eyes sketches. “It’s been great to be a part of ‘Joe’ right now. Between the movie, the video game coming out and the ‘Resolute’ cartoon, it’s all made for different avenues for either a new audience of longtime fans to get their Joe fix,” Atkins told CBR.
Snake Eyes actor Ray Park was at the show, but Atkins didn’t have a chance to meet him. “I wish I could have. I was pretty much chained to the table, which is a good problem to have,” the artist said. “Luckily, he’s one of the guys who is at a lot of the conventions. I’m hoping to get a chance to meet with him by the end of the show. He’s doing a miniseries that he’s co-writing for next year.”
Recently, Atkins drew the “Ultimate Fantastic Four Requiem” one-shot for Marvel and will have his work featured in “Amazing Spider-Man” #603, though he’s excited to reteam with Chuck Dixon for more Joe work. “The way he lays scripts out, everything’s there. I can’t explain it, but as I read through it I just see the panels in my head, and I end up going straight to the page. I never have to redraft or do multiple thumbnails. I’ll be back on for issues #13 through 17. Also, right now I’m working on stuff for ‘Heroes’ on NBC.”