More Con War skirmishes and Con Love treaties

(Yes, I'm enjoying the metaphors. Why do you ask?)

Full-scale warfare between convention promoters isn't universal, believe it or not -- some are giving peace a chance. In addition to the recent arrangement worked out by Heroes Con and Supercon to avoid a date conflict, Emerald City ComiCon's Jim Demonakos tells Robot 6 that following an unavoidable conflict with Orlando's MegaCon the weekend of March 13, 2010, he and MegaCon's Beth Widera collaborated on choosing dates for 2011 so that future overlap could be avoided. "We ended up on the same dates for 2010 and neither of us could move, but we've talked and coordinated and our mutual 2011 dates will not be on each other's dates at all," says Demonakos. "Con planning, always an adventure."

Indeed. While it's not quite "all quiet on the Con War front" in terms of open hostilities between the nebulous Gareb Shamus/Wizard Entertainment empire and Reed Exhibitions, things have at least died down to a dull roar at the moment. Shamus remains silent, Reed insists it's business as usual regardless of Shamus's confrontational scheduling moves, and about the closest you can get to one-on-one antagonism between the two rival convention promoters is a do-it-yourself comparison of their pre- and post-Halloween guest announcements: Hellboy creator Mike Mignola will be a guest of honor at Reed's C2E2, while Batman TV star Burt Ward will be appearing at Shamus's Anaheim Comic Con that same weekend.

But the lack of direct conflict doesn't mean a few verbal grenades haven't been lobbed Wizard/Shamus's way over the past week by other parties, ranging from former employees to a pair of recent Wiz sparring partners, cartoonist Scott Kurtz and Marvel's C.B. Cebulski.

One such explosion took place at the message board of Panels on Pages, a site founded by now-ex-Wizard Universe Message Board users-cum-Wizard website/magazine writers. With the shutdown of the WUMB last week, PoP has become increasingly required reading for dedicated Wizard watchers. Case in point: PoP message board user Foxy recounted a story of how earlier this year, Wizard employees Brett White and Adam Tracey used the WUMB to search for fan-owned Michael Turner sketches the company could publish in an expanded version of its Turner tribute hardcover. The staffers announced that a portion of the proceeds would be donated to the Sam Loeb Foundation, set up by comics superstar (and Turner's friend) Jeph Loeb in honor of his late son, who like Turner died (too young) of cancer. But after White was fired, Tracey unceremoniously quit, and the book finally came out, Foxy and other WUMBers discovered that the promised donation was never made. The WUMB thread announcing the search for sketches and chronicling the subsequent demand for answers as to what happened to the charitable donation never received an official response and disappeared (as did two similar threads) with the WUMB itself -- but not before PoP member Solstrom preserved and reposted it on PoP's board.

The outcry attracted the attention of Rich Johnston, who since his Wizard-funded trip to the Big Apple Comic Con has emerged as the only writer able to get Wizard staffers to comment on the record (outside of press releases and the now-defunct WUMB). Writing both on the PoP board and his own Bleeding Cool site, Johnston said he got in touch with Wizard VP of Business Development Stephen Shamus (brother of owner and CEO Gareb Shamus), who blamed the disappearing donation on a communication breakdown caused by staff turnover, and said that now that they'd been made aware of the problem, the company would contact the Sam Loeb Foundation to make the donation -- and to see if they'd be interested in setting up a donation drive at future Shamus conventions.

However, Shamus's explanation, and Johnston's subsequent statement that "it's possible the right people did not read the right thread," didn't fly with the PoPsters, who point out that threads about the Turner book, customer service issues, and other problems went on for months with the clear knowledge of Wizard staffers. Indeed, the frequent intervention of Wizard higher-ups in ordering the deletion and banning of threads and users critical of the company appear to indicate that if anything, this sort of thread received extra attention from decision-makers within the Shamus organization.

Elsewhere on PoP, former Wizard staff writer, frequent WUMB pot-stirrer, and Political Power: Barack Obama author Chris Ward was a guest on the site's weekly podcast. (Discussion of Wizard and the death of the WUMB begins at 1:04:20; Ward's appearance begins at 1:09:38.) Ward minces no words for his former company, which he calls "totally mismanaged."

"These guys literally have no fucking idea what they're doing... They have neither the skills nor the insight to keep up, and the people that had that, they fired," Ward says of Wizard's upper echelon. [Full disclosure: I don't know from skills or insight, but I was one of the people the company fired.] Though he does praise managing editor Andy Serwin, Ward also reveals that he's been blacklisted from the magazine for making a joke about a freelance check bouncing, tells tales out of school about the work environment, and takes some pretty vicious shots at Stephen Shamus (and, in passing, Rich Johnston). For their part, hosts Lee Rodriguez, Jason Kerouac, Tripper McGee, and Jason Knize describe the experience of being plucked from the WUMB to write for Wizard proper, only to watch their gigs disappear as the editors who hired them got laid off one after another.

But it's not just ex-Wizard writers who have a bone to pick with the company. Fresh off his Twitter tirade against the company, PvP writer-artist Scott Kurtz really let loose after receiving a letter from Sales Manager Larry Ernst, addressed to "Kurt," encouraging him to attend the Anaheim Comic Con, apparently sent without knowing that Kurtz had already made his feelings about Gareb Shamus's conventions abundantly clear. In an open letter to Ernst and Wizard, Kurtz writes "Your conventions are total horseshit" and gets angrier from there, reserving his most undiluted fury for what he describes as the magazine's ignoring of late artist Mike Wieringo, then its public about-face upon Wieringo's passing. Kurtz's sentiments echo those of Wieringo himself, as expressed in this impassioned defense of Heroes Con and attack on Gareb Shamus, written by 'Ringo during Heroes Con's initial scheduling conflict with Shamus's never-realized Wizard World Atlanta. (Ironically, a gallery of Wieringo's Wizard covers, which might offer proof that the magazine did indeed pay attention to the artist, has disappeared along with the bulk of Wizard's website.)

Reactions to Kurtz's post have varied. Marvel talent liaison C.B. Cebulski, himself no stranger to public disputes with Wizard, tweeted a link to the open letter in seemingly supportive fashion, indicating that a recent high-level meeting between Cebulski and Wizard editorial either didn't produce a rapprochement or was subsequently undermined by the Big Apple/NYCC battle. Comics Alliance's Laura Hudson's defense of current and former Wizard employees against Kurtz's blanket statements (coupled with a few shots at Kurtz's self-described status as "a pioneer in my field" and "'tastemaker'") met with vehement comment-thread opposition from Kurtz's fans (UPDATE: and from Kurtz himself), and with considerably more polite dissent from Tom Spurgeon, who argues that getting yelled at from time to time is the price of working for a company with divisive policies. And on his own blog, Chris Ward returned with the inside story of the incident Kurtz says turned him against Wizard -- a "convention horror story" involving Kurtz, Ward, Ethan Van Sciver, a deaf fan, and "the world's shittiest band."

As Shamus/Wizard higher-ups continue to strategically distance themselves from the comics industry (even as seemingly contradictory moves are rumored behind-the-scenes); as decision time approaches for guests of the conflicting Reed and Shamus shows; and as sharper contrasts are drawn between the tactics used by Shamus and those employed by Reed and by regional con organizations like Emerald City and MegaCon, we may see more and more professionals and Wizard alums become comfortable publicly taking aim at the house that Gareb built.

("Con War" graphic courtesy of Jason Erwin)

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