Comicpalooza: Houston's Innovative Convention

This weekend, March 26 - 28, Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center is the home to Comicpalooza, a comics, science fiction and gaming convention with a short history and innovation to spare.

The first Comicpalooza had an inauspicious debut in the lobby of a movie theater, coinciding with the premiere of "The Dark Knight" in 2008. Organizer John Simons said that it was never intended to be anything more than an opportunity to draw media attention to some local comics creators, but one year later, in 2009, Comicpalooza expanded into a two-day comic book festival set in a shopping mall. Again, the focus was on the local, but added such con mainstays as Q&A panels and film screenings. It proved to be very successful and "Comicpalooza," a name chosen somewhat in haste, found that they had quickly earned a reputation. Simons had always intended to do a larger convention eventually, and as he moved toward that goal, he decided to ride the success of two the smaller events and kept the name.

Landing in Houston's premiere convention center upped the ante considerably, but Simons went into his venture with some experience and savvy about how a convention is run. He has 15 years of experience as a comics retailer with his west Houston store, Midnight Comics, and during those years, he has been a vendor at numerous other gaming, comics and manga shows. "This gave me an opportunity to see a variety of conventions and see what worked and what didn't and to meet a lot of people who had experience," Simons explained. "Not just people who did it, but [who] succeeded, who were doing something right."

With the 2010 Comicpalooza, Simons is clearly putting to use the variety of experience he's had. He and his team have assembled a guest list that cuts across the spectrum of comics, film, science fiction and related genres.

For comics fans, Comicpalooza will boast a lineup that includes current hot artists such as JH Williams, III ("Batwoman," "Promethea") and Ethan Van Sciver ("Green Lantern," "Flash: Reborn") to classic artists such as Swamp Thing co-creator, Bernie Wrightson. Other names familiar to comics fans include Ben Templesmith, Humberto Ramos, Rob Liefield, Phil Foglio, and quite a few more.

Still, keeping to his original idea of highlighting local talent, Simons pointed out a number of Houston and Texas residents, including Mat Johnson (of Vertigo's "Incognegro"), who teaches at the University of Houston, and Christopher Sperandio (Kartoon Kings), who teaches at Rice University and Josh Howard ("Dead@17"), another resident of Texas.

For the science fiction and fantasy TV and movie fans, there will be such draws as Peter Mayhew, aka Chewbacca, and Ray Park, aka Darth Maul, from the world of Star Wars. Fans of TV's "Heroes" will get the chance to meet actress Brea Grant, who will also be promoting her upcoming IDW comic, "We Will Bury You." Cult movie legend Bruce Campbell makes a Saturday-only appearance while fans of "Veronica Mars" will have a double dose of actors in Jason Dohring (Saturday only) and Francis Capra.

"We're trying to appeal to diverse groups," said Simons. "For instance, Phil Foglio: his web comic gets 120,000 hits a day. He has a significant following, and when it comes to steampunk, he's our number one guest."

Quite possibly the most unique aspect of Comicpalooza is the number of Houston organizations that are actively helping out with promoting the event. Institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, NASA, Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) are all making their support and presence known at Comicpalooza.

Perhaps most significant among these partners is the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor Bureau. "They're helping us market this convention to Mexico and South America," Simons told CBR News. "They're translating all our press releases into Spanish and distributing to newspapers throughout Mexico and South America and also sending information to travel agents down there. Houston gets a lot of tourism from [these areas], and these are usually wealthy clients. Comics are very popular in Mexico City, so there's a possibility that we might be able to draw on that tourism for this event."

MFAH Marketing Manager, Adrienne Saxe, who expressed intentions of doing more in years to come, such as a film series or onsite art show, noted that their involvement was somewhat limited this time around. "This year we'll promote it through our email list, onsite at our Glassell School of Art to our students, because we feel we definitely have a constituency that would be interested in it."

"In large part, comics and the science fiction they're often based on imagine a world of advanced scientific achievement - where people have the technology to travel to Mars, create advanced robots or contact alien life," said Latha Thomas, Vice President of Marketing for HMNS. "This inspires people to wonder about what's possible, to pursue advances in real life that they might first read about in fiction - which is why we're so excited to participate in Comicpalooza, a gathering of thousands of people who are as inspired by science and the possibilities of the future as we are."

Simons believes that this sort of support for a city's arts and sciences organizations is unprecedented and that all these partnerships create a synergy that is part of the unique Houston experience. "What a lot of people don't realize is that this is a city of innovation," he explained. "Our arts groups, our ballet, our theaters are very innovative and progressive, and this is the city to be doing this kind of convention with this kind of collaboration."

To get the full scope of what's going on in Texas this weekend, be sure to visit the Comicpalooza website.

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