Friday, Nov. 13–Sunday, Nov. 15
$20–$40 (under 12 free, VIP $200)
Durham Convention Center
301 W. Morgan St., Durham
In five years, NC Comicon has grown from a small comic book show at a remote outlet mall to a large convention, replete with top artists, writers, celebrity guests, panels and costume contests. It attracted 6,500 attendees to the Durham Convention Center last year.
The expansion continues this year with an extra half-day of programming and a footprint that fills the entire venue, not to mention off-site events all weekend at the Durham Armory and the returning ComiQuest Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre.
And the marquee guests have a draw that goes beyond comics: Charlie Adlard has been the artist of The Walking Dead since issue No. 7, and Gerard Way has followed a career as lead singer for My Chemical Romance as the author of surreal superhero comic The Umbrella Academy.
But NC Comicon might have done the most growing behind the scenes, as its organizers have learned to see other area comics retailers as community rather than competitionpartly because of the arrival of a more dangerous adversary, Wizard World.
The corporate convention chain made its North Carolina debut at the Raleigh Convention Center in March, four months after NC Comicon in November. The heavily promoted newcomer attracted large crowds with celebrities such as William Shatner.
In contrast to the comics-focused NC Comicon, Wizard World features fewer actual comic books than celebrity autographs and memorabilia, and its ticket prices are several times higher than NC Comicon’s. Wizard World has been criticizedby Alan Gill, who owns Chapel Hill’s Ultimate Comics and founded NC Comicon, among othersfor its aggressive relationship with local conventions, pushing them out or sowing confusion.
“They call it Raleigh Comic Con, so people get it confused with us,” Gill says. “Comics guys get it, but the other 85 percent of people don’t.”
Wizard World has bumped up against locally run North Carolina conventions before. The 2006 Wizard World Atlanta was booked the same weekend as HeroesCon, the Charlotte show run by the shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find. A number of high-level creators, including Warren Ellis and J. Michael Straczynski, signed on as HeroesCon guests in protest. Wizard World moved the date of its Atlanta show away from HeroesCon, which enjoyed its largest attendance and highest profile in years as a result of the anti-Wizard World backlash.
Wizard World has a 2016 Raleigh show posted on its website, though the dates and details remain TBD. Gill speculates that this means Wizard World is moving in on NC Comicon’s dates.
“You can’t book the Raleigh Convention Center further out than a year,” he explains. “One reason they might not have announced their dates is that they’re waiting for that year window, which would put them closer to us. They haven’t announced their Richmond convention yet, either, and VA Comicon is a week after us, so the Richmond promoter and I are keeping our eye on that.”
Last year, Ultimate Comics handed out anti-Wizard World flyers. Now it is taking a wait-and-see approach. In fact, the jury is still out on the adverse affects of Wizard World. There are ways in which it might even help the local comics economy, by driving interest in the medium and uniting retailers against a technological development more threatening to their livelihood than any glitzy corporate interloper.
We were at war,” Gill says. “Two years later, we’re all one big, happy family.”
He’s referring to a 2013 feud with Greensboro’s Acme Comics, which booked its Comic Book City Con two weeks before NC Comicon that year, resulting in misunderstandings and hurt feelings on both sides. NC Comicon ordered its guests not to appear at the Greensboro show and publicly bashed Acme in the form of a giveaway coloring sheet at Ultimate Comics. It showed its mascot hitting Acme’s, Acme Bat, with, well, a bat. It was all in good fun, Gill insisted. But, as reported in the INDY at the time, some, including Acme’s staff, found the whole thing childish and offensive.
Times have changed. Ultimate Comics has been working more closely with other local retailers, including Chapel Hill Comics and the newer Fight or Flight Comics in Raleigh, offering them cross-promotion and space at Ultimate Comics events such as the Raleigh-based Oak City Comics Show. Ultimate also mended fences with Acme, which returned to NC Comicon last year and will appear again this year.
“Alan invited us personally,” says Acme Comics manager Jermaine Exum. “In any business arena, especially comic books, where store-to-store interactions can be unusual from time to time nationwide, it meant a lot that someone reached out to me and asked me if we wanted to come to this show.”
Gill says that his retail backgroundhe formerly owned a TCBY franchiseled him to perceive other comic shops as competition that needed to be overcome.
“It was my understanding of how business was done,” he says. He’s developed a new respect for shops such as Chapel Hill Comics, which caters more to fans of indie and art books than the mainstream superhero audience that is Ultimate’s bread and butter.
“They’re good shops; they broaden the readership base,” Gill says. “Good comic stores are good for mebecause honestly, our competition is not each other, it’s people moving to digital. If everyone moves to digital tomorrow because of shitty comic book stores, then we’re all out of business.”
The rise of iPads and comiXology, an iTunes-like app for digital comics, has built a wide audience of fans who haven’t set foot in a comic book shop. While good for fandom, that’s a problem for brick-and-mortar locations, which rely on a regular customer base. Gill says retailers have a duty to make the comic-shop experience as welcoming and attractive as possible. The same goes for the convention experience.
Exum, who attended Wizard World “out of curiosity,” notes that it was “very homogenized.”
“I would not have known that I was in the city of Raleigh if not for a few local artists,” he says. “There were very few vendors who had actual comics for sale; there were very few local vendors of anything. When you’re partnered with Wizard World, you’re like a traveling vendor, going wherever they go, and you have attendees who’ve already spent a lot to get in the door and more to get autographs from celebrities. There’s not a lot of money left over, and not the local flavor and history you get at a show like NC Comicon or HeroesCon.”
That said, the presence of Wizard World has undeniable upsides. Charles Covar, co-owner of Fight or Flight Comics, says it attracted more customers to his store from out of town, “because they’d been at the convention looking for comics and couldn’t find anything.”
Though Covar was initially wary when Ultimate Comics opened a store in Raleigh earlier this year, he was pleasantly surprised when they contacted him, offering space at Oak City and holding a table for him at NC Comicon after he missed the deadline for application. A similar offer from Wizard World proved less appealing.
“[Wizard World] did come to us, but their business practices were … not very flexible, that’s a nice way to put it,” Covar says. “Word got back to us that they had offered a deal to another store in the area, but they wanted to charge us full price, even though we’d only been open a month. That was kind of insulting. Frankly, NC Comicon is a much more affordable con for dealers. Most other shows are, actually.”
There is also something to be said for the motivating aspects of tough competition. Wizard World’s presence prompted an expansion of NC Comicon in 2014, resulting, Gill says, in “the first year we made money.”
Gill concedes that last year, handling the crowds that showed up at NC Comicon for Doctor Who and Torchwood star John Barrowman and Saga artist Fiona Staples was problematic. Parking decks rapidly filled up and lines for major guests blocked floor traffic. The solution this year is to give the biggest stars, Adlard and Way, autograph signings off the main convention floor that require an additional $10 fee. That has sparked some irritation from attendees, but Gill points out that all profits go to Duke Children’s Hospital, and “it’s a way to keep the lines reasonable.”
“Pricing is a hard business decision. I hate having to increase prices, especially as we’re increasing attendance every year,” Gill says. “I feel like from the outside, people are thinking, ‘They’re getting greedy.’ But profit is literally never on our projection sheets.”
If Wizard World ever books directly against NC Comicon, then the local convention could have a serious problem.
“I’m not worried about Wizard World year one or two,” Gill says. “I’m worried about six years from now, if they get a strong foothold in the community. If their dates stay far enough away from us and they stay focused on media guests, I don’t have anything to worry about. My fight with Acme, I understand that was wrong, because they are local and I should be thinking of them as allies. Wizard World, on the other hand, I don’t think I’m being paranoidI’m being a good businessman.”
Or it could provoke the same kind of loyal counter-reaction HeroesCon enjoyed. Until then, it serves Gill as an example of what he doesn’t want NC Comicon to be. He wants to keep it growing while retaining a local foundation and a reasonable scale.
“I want to see NC Comicon become a festival like Dragon Con,” the Atlanta-based sci-fi convention that attracted 70,000 people this past year, Gill says. “We can work with local hotels and restaurants and really turn downtown Durham into one big comics convention. But unlike Wizard World, I’ll never do something outside of my sphere, outside of my state.”
FOUR ON THE FLOOR
NC Comicon’s dozens of guests include crossover stars (Charlie Adlard, Gerard Way), modern superhero mainstays (Christos Gage, Bernard Chang) and industry legends (Neal Adams). You can find them by their long lines. Meanwhile, here are four guests we don’t want to get lost on the convention floor. Each represents something important about comics now, as the medium grows more mainstream, sophisticated and inclusive. Brian Howe
AFUA RICHARDSON We interviewed Afua Richardson before last year’s NC Comicon, where she was on an incisive “diversity in comics” panel with star Saga artist Fiona Staples. We learned that, in addition to being a black woman in an industry whose white male-dominance is just beginning to crack, Richardson has a bewilderingly cool résumé. (A musician as well as a talented artist, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall and on Soul Train.) Breaking out with her award-winning miniseries, Genius, before making headway as a cover artist for Marvel and DC, she carries what must be a burdensome rolethe almost-lone diversity ambassadorwith humor and generosity.
STACEY LEE Marvel recently relaunched its entire line with a much greater emphasis on women and people of color in leading roles, not only introducing new characters but also recasting illustrious old ones, including Thor, Captain America and Wolverine. Relative newcomer Stacey Lee is one of the artists on the leading edge of this transition. This year, she made her Marvel debut on sleeper hit Silk, a female version of Spider-Man. Lee’s polished, poppy art is a blast, and given superhero comics’ historically distorted body standards, it’s a relief to see more women being drawn by women.
DINESH SHAMDASANI Around 1990, as the Big Two fed a market bubble with copious “collectors’ items,” creators started breaking away to form independent companies, including lasting successes like Image Comics and seemingly bright fizzles like Valiant Entertainment. Despite great properties such as X-O Manowar (think Iron Man crossed with Conan the Barbarian), it succumbed to the mid-’90s crash that almost felled even the mighty Marvel. Valiant’s new CEO, Dinesh Shamdasani, helped relaunch the dormant line in 2012, and while’90s nostalgia didn’t hurt, the new company didn’t rely on it for its instant popularity. Instead, it fashioned the old properties into state-of-the-art superhero comics that feel like gritty serial dramas on TV. Shamdasani embodies an industry that has grown media-savvy but remains rooted in its long, colorful history.
JOHN PAUL LEON In creator-owned comics, the boundary between sequential art, graphic design and fine art has been all but erased. Even comics with traditional line art inside are likely to be wrapped in inventive, advanced cover illustrations. New York School of Visual Arts graduate John Paul Leon created the striking exterior look of Brian Wood’s majestic eco-thriller, The Massive, with bold figures in geometric frames and color washes evocative of ’60s spy-movie posters. He also has standard superhero chops: He’s currently drawing DC’s Detective Comics, starring this fellow by the name of Batman.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Space invaders”