Wizard's Chicago Comic Con From The Floor

By Shaun Manning and Kiel Phegley

This past weekend, the latest stop in the ongoing string of Wizard World pop culture conventions landed in Rosemont, IL just north of Chicago for the headlining event of the run: Wizard World Chicago Comic Con.

As in years past, the convention was full of a mix of multi-media guests, back issue-drive retailers and a sampling of regional comics creative talent. While not as highly touted amongst comic publishers and commentators as it was when Wizard's summer tour only had four stops with a much stronger comics focus (the current tour has 15 shows in its makeup), Wizard's Chicago event still appears to draw a healthy crowd of locals looking for a photo with anyone from cable TV stars to the state's disgraced former governor or snatch up back issues and character sketches at a nice price.

"The show this year went unbelievable," Wizard owner Gareb Shamus told CBR News. "We tried a bunch of new things, and it worked out extraordinarily well. As most people here noticed, the attendance was unbelievable. We had huge lines to get into the place, and it really was the culmination of a lot of marketing we do to a lot of new people. There are a lot of new faces that have never been to the show before, and that was a big goal for us - to get a lot of people out with their families, especially a lot of kids."

Of course, everything Shamus has to say about his shows and his company is infused with upbeat takes on everything from attendance to exhibitors. He defends the criticisms of his organization with an aggressive optimism that runs counter to any negative report, blog post or message board thread imaginable. "We know what the fans want. We've been reaching fans all over the world for almost 20 years now. The magazine's in over 40 countries and in many, many languages. We know what fans want, and we know how to get it and how to get them excited about those things."

The reality of WWCCC is one of a robust show whose draw and appeal most likely lies somewhere in between the unshakable praise of its organizers and the snarky dismissal of its most vehement online critics. But overall, the notable events and news out of this year's convention help shed light on the changing role of Wizard in the pop culture realm.

Despite having reinstituted the Chicago Comic Con name last year (replacing, or at least supplanting in prominence, the Wizard World monicker), guests and programming drew further away from a comics focus. William Shatner once again led a strong lineup of geek-focused media guests which included Adam West and Burt Ward, James Marsters, Linda Hamilton, Linda Blair and others. The surprising last-minute addition of disgraced but attention-loving former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich also proved a big draw. The usual suspects of former wrestlers, Playboy models and other celebrity guests were given prominent space on the show floor. Several stars of the comics field were in attendance, including Brian Azzarello, J. Scott Campbell, Geof Darrow, Jill Thompson and Bill Sienkiewicz, but the programming schedule only allotted a handful of panels to comics. These panels included a "Wizard School" panel with Greg Horn on Friday and Q&A sessions with Victor Gischler and Joe Madureira on Saturday, as well as "Ethan van Sciver Sings the Blues" (check back with CBR later for more about this). In the nighttime, programming brought a few new facets of the show to light, including a Masquerade Ball/dance party in support of the "Mafia II" video game and film screenings including director Neil Marshall's "Centurion."

Comics still held a considerable presence on the show floor, however. Though the big companies, from DC and Marvel to Dark Horse and Image no longer exhibit or hold panels at the show, retailers and artists have filled the space to ply their wares. CBR caught up with local creator Mike Norton - the artist on DC's upcoming "Young Justice" comic series - for his take. "Everything's been very good. It's not as busy as years past, but much more traffic than I expected. It reminds me of when I used to come up here from Memphis to go to the show - before it was Wizard, it was a lot like this," Norton explained.

"I had a pretty decent amount of traffic. People are buying stuff. I've been purposefully staying away from my table, so it hasn't been busy at those times, but that's a choice of my own. I've been going around and buying stuff myself. As far as a buying show, I'd say it's been pretty good."

Archie creator Dan Parent agreed with Norton's take, though the cartoonist still felt a bit of con fatigue, hitting the show in August. "It's been a little rough lately because I just did San Diego, and then I've got this show, and then we do Toronto next week." Parent told CBR his table has seen more traffic across conventions of late as the publisher's profile has risen with moves like the introduction of gay teen Kevin Keller in this week's "Veronica" #202. "Probably when the issue comes out and people read the story, it'll get another round of attention," said Parent who wrote and drew the issue. "But it's been good. We've been getting good notices on the story, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We're putting a lot of energy into these new projects [at Archie] so it's exciting from the creator's standpoint. People have really noticed. People have been coming up at the show who haven't been aware of Archie in years, and now they know what's going on."

Next up for Parent and Archie will be "New School," a six-issue crossover between all the Archie titles. "The premise of the story is that a nearby school gets shut down because of budget cuts - it kind of mirrors the modern news - and that school combines with Riverdale. So you're going to meet a whole bunch of new students, and you're going to see how they get along with the current kids. We're bringing in a lot of characters to the story. It's starts in October and goes through December. I'm in the middle of it right now. It's been a challenge, but it's fun."

Another area where comics received more attention was in the dealer longboxes. New and familiar vendors set up arrays of $1 comics, half-price trade paperbacks and hard-to-find issues from the Gold and Silver Ages. John Robinson, co-owner of Graham Cracker Comics, told CBR, "It's been fantastic. I think this is probably the most people I've ever seen at one of the Chicagoland comic conventions. Everyone's upbeat, everything's terrific. I've never seen it so good on a Saturday. Friday was similar to last year's, but Saturday really topped the numbers. I don't know if it was [the draw of] Adam West, William Shatner - who knows."

It's hard to say for certain, but the lack of programming may have helped dealers by keeping fans on the floor rather than sending them into panels, which would keep them from making purchases for the duration of the programming event plus any time spent waiting in line. The dearth of publisher tables, - save for Top Shelf and Avatar - also meant fewer distractions from hunting for rare comics or filling gaps in one's collection. The cumulative result of what the reconfigured Wizard World Chicago Comic Con does and does not have makes it less flashy than it has been in years past, very likely less of a national or regional event, but the fans who streamed in to collect autographs and pour through piles and piles of comics, toys and other memorabilia seemed pleased with their experience.

"In terms of the events themselves, the great part of it is that a lot of characters and a lot of stories that have been told about the characters are out there in a lot of other media," Shamus said of the audience Wizard is trying to attract. "When you look at a lot of the people who are here, they may be a Spider-Man fan, but it's probably not from a comic book. It's probably from a movie or a television show or a video game or a toy line. People have discovered these characters in a lot of different ways. From that perspective, everybody tries to do something in a lot of different ways, and we want to create an atmosphere that they can enjoy these characters in whatever media they want. Whether it's the comic book creators we have here or the movie and TV stars or the toy and game companies - any touch points people have - we like to have it all at our shows."

There were a few complaints across the convention center about the show, however. The convention's floorplan left much to be desired for some attendees. Placing big-name draws like William Shatner near the entrance, in a booth that had him facing a narrow aisle, led to severe bottlenecks as fans stopped to snap pictures, even as they were told such was not allowed. Other planning issues, such as divorcing the map of the floor and programming schedule from the program booklet itself and the fact that several exhibitors were not where the map said they would be, added to the disarray.

And, of course, the last-minute addition of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to the bill drew both crowds - and sometimes boos - from the fans in attendance. "When you look at what happened with him, it's actually pretty extraordinary what we were able to do," Shamus said, noting that Blagojevich's overall status in popular culture and the winning personality that got him elected made him an ideal get for the show. "We decided that this was something that we were going to go after, and when you look at the list of people we were competing against - this was not just a case of 'Oh, we're going to get somebody.' This was 'He's on the "Today Show." We want this guy, and so do "60 Minutes," "20/20" and a thousand other news outlets.' We competed against all those outlets, and yet he chose us. And why did he choose us? Because we created a compelling opportunity for him to not only reach the media but also to get to the fans and the people."

Overall, Shamus explained that while Wizard no longer promotes a Guest of Honor at Chicago or any of its shows or builds up the expansive guest lists of comics creators expected in years past, the sheer number of shows he owns allows his company to bring out a wide variety of talent. "We have 15 shows right now, and we're looking to be at least 25 events - that's our target...[And with the number of guests] it all depends on the shows. Not all shows are created equal. We have shows that are different sizes, different shapes, and we like to cater to each show and each market appropriately. Our show in Boston is not going to be as big as our show in Philly, which is not going to be as big as our show in Chicago. By having numerous events, it gives us a lot of opportunity to bring in guests."

On tap for the next Wizard show - Big Apple Comic Con October 1 through 3 at the Penn Plaza Pavilion in New York City - are media stars including Lee Majors, Adam West, Mickey Rooney and David DeLuise from "Witches Of Waverly Place" along with comic creators Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. A reunion of the three Brady boys from "The Brady Bunch" will also take place. After that, the tour moves on to the Heinz Center in Boston where Wizard will host "Buffy Fest," featuring many actors from the various Joss Whedon TV series.

Looking at his shows as a whole, Shamus seemed unaffected by talk surrounding a Con War between his company and competitors like Reed Conventions who run New York Comic Con and Chicago's C2E2. "We actually don't have any competition, because we have access to the fans," he said. "So when we tell our fans that we're doing something, they respond. At the end of the day, we don't have any competition because we have direct access to the end consumer. When we want to do something, we reach out to our audience and create a very compelling experience. It doesn't matter what else is going on, people are going to come to our show."

Similarly, Shamus renewed his commitment to an open door policy on comic publishers coming back to the Wizard brand of events, though he seemed perfectly happy to have his shows roll on without them if the wanted it that way. "Our shows are open to everybody. We're Switzerland. We want everybody to come and have a great time. We love the publishers products, and if they want to come, they can come. If they decide not to come, I can't make decisions as to what they think they should be doing. However, we know that we get the fans. The fans love what we do, and they spend money. I think the publishers are missing a lot of opportunities to make money and to reach new people. We will literally have more people here this weekend than actually read most comics out there. To have that many people at one time can create a great opportunity to increase their ability, awareness and sales. They can do that or not, but at the end of the day, it's not going to stop us from creating a compelling atmosphere for fans."

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