I just lived an awkward experience at Wizard World Philadelphia this past weekend. A convention that had everything to be perfect, but just wasn’t. What happened? Who’s to blame? Let’s review that one…
I remember my first Wizard World. It was in 1999, in Chicago. Things were very different back then. Wizard was a magazine which had an promoter arm. I was the editor in chief of Comic Box, a magazine that had very little in common with Wizard, but it was weird to be there anyway. I have very good memories of that Wizard World show. I met Brandon Peterson for the first time, as he was about to become the Art Director for Crossgen. I met Mike Marts who was a young assistant editor at Acclaim Comics. I had this strange meeting with Top Cow’s Matt Hawkins who kept calling me “François” instead of Fabrice. And I conducted my first interview with Paul Jenkins who was so delighted to talk about his upcoming book, the Sentry, that he bought me lunch after 40mn of interview to keep talking about it!
Now, Wizard World is a very different company than it used to be. No more magazines. No more publishing. And a management that has been almost entirely renewed in the past two years. Our contact there is Scott Perry. Let’s say it loud and clear: Scott is a GREAT guy. Always trying to see the best in things. But Wizard World is a big circus, and he can’t possibly have his eyes on every detail of such a big piece of machinery.
Let’s set up!
As I arrive in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 1st, I immediately feel comfortable. I love Philly. The fact that I’ve been here for the third time this year is probably anything but a coincidence. I took the bus from NY. And the station is super close to the Convention Center where the convention takes place. A five minute walk, at best. Will meets me there. After a quick registration process, I’m going up to my booth, 1743. The show opened at 4PM and up until 9PM, we waited for the crowd to come.
Then we waited the next day. For people to buy stuff. Very few did. Not that the show was empty, it wasn’t, but people were passing by the table, not buying anything or very little. Considering how well we performed recently at shows, we concurred that we weren’t the main problem.
About halfway through the second day, Friday, Will tells me: “If we keep going on like that, there’s no way we’re going back to the hotel. We’re going back to my place in Jersey, we’ll sleep there and will come back”. I wasn’t too thrilled about that. Not only it would mean a 90mn trip to go there (and back the next day), but we’d also miss the part that every creator likes: the con life. Where you can hang out with other creators, learn, listen, reinvent the world! But Will was right, with what we made on Thursday and Friday, there was no way we could afford another night at the hotel. So, to Jersey we went back.
Bad to Worse
After two days, we counted on the weekend to bring that con to life. Talking to our peers all around the aisles, we realized we weren’t the only ones experiencing a “flat con”. Saturday morning, we saw huge lines forming and expectations were high. But… Apparently, the crowd didn’t come for the comic book creators. They came for the celebrities and the cosplayers. The way the con was laid out was clearly made to put all the emphasis on the celebrities, the actors and all. The floor plan was unlike anyone I’ve seen in a con before but I was told that was often how Wizard World were organized. Coming in the Hall, you’re facing a stage with a (noisy) band and right behind, some kind of island with all the celebrities. At this point, you’re right in the middle of the hall. On your left: vendors. On your right: vendors and buried in that section, the Artist Alley. I wouldn’t say we were hard to find, but if you didn’t know or didn’t search for an Artist Alley, it wasn’t certainly easy to understand you were in it. As a result, at its peak, the audience stuck in the middle of the Hall and rarely adventured in the Artist Alley. Hence a disappointment on our part. At the end of the day, we didn’t really make whoopees. We even broke the record of the least successful Saturday of the year, business wise. And not just us… Everyone there. And Sunday? No miracle happened. Sunday was the least successful of a an unsuccessful event. We broke even, but thanks to Will’s flair when we came back to his pad instead of staying at the Hotel. If we stayed, it would’ve been a disastrous venture. And when we’re staying at a Hotel, we’re aiming at the ones under $100 a night, which isn’t really expensive. You get the idea.
Wrong is not the new Right, is it?
Besides the really odd real estate at the con, tickets were really expensive. $50+ for a day, $90+ for the weekend. And if you’re in for the celebrities, you have to open your wallet even wider, some talents charging up to $500 for a signature and a couple of minutes of their time. After investing all that money, it’s clear that what’s left for the comic book creators and the vendors are isn’t much. On top of that, 4 days seems like a bit too much for such a show. Condensing it to 3 days would certainly be a better deal for the public. Not to mention that most of the other Wizard shows are 3 days events.
Now, other issues were really disturbing. Security, which always has to be mandatory, wasn’t really operational on the first day. So between the first and the second day, rules changed. As guests, we entered without any control on the first day. Went in and out of the facility. But when we came back on Friday, there were some metal detectors and bag checks for everyone. Then the third day, we were told to bypass the checkpoint, because, precisely, we were guests. I don’t have any problem with security. It’s very important, especially with everything that has happened all around the world. But there, we had no information. I was joking about this with writer Tara Flynn, who I met in the elevator. She agreed that screening vendors and talent wasn’t a problem (it would even be recommended!), but we’d love to be informed about it. Or have special times to come to the Convention Center in order to avoid being stuck with the general public and not be there for them when they come to our booth. But the information/organization part had apparently left the building. Another problem? Coordination. I had the pleasure of being invited to two panels (more on that below). For the first one, the right location was on the website, but NOT on the leaflet distributed at the con. As a result, very few showed up. Or they came by accident. And, of course, no announcement were made on the con floor! Think it’s just a misstep? Think again. For the second panel, on the Sunday, the Wizard people didn’t pay attention that they printed the wrong programming on the leaflet. So the panel information was not even there! But people showed up as the always proactive Danny Fingeroth triggered the alarm!
You think I’m done? I am not. And it’s probably the most disturbing part. The Philadelphia Convention Center is located in the heart of the city. It’s clearly an advantage. It’s easy to get there. Yet, I saw no banners on the outside. No ads in town. And the entrance was very discreet with the name of the con printed on regular copy paper in black and white. Not what you expect of a big show. With no proper signage, if you didn’t know there was a comic book convention there and wasn’t curious, you couldn’t have possibly known. No wonder why attendance wasn’t the best ever! All weekend, the Wizard World people always seemed understaffed, constantly looking for solutions to problems that could’ve been avoided easily before the show. That’s the sign of a company in the process of reinventing itself with very few senior managers here to guide people and volunteers. Yesterday, Chris Arrant signed a post on Newsarama stating that WW’s operational margin dropped from 41% to 9% recently, with a $1,282,078 loss for Q1. You were looking for answers? You now have a few elements. But I’m genuinely hoping that Wizard World will bring back an A-Game for future cons. Because, a whole lot of other things were awesome in Philly…
The Good part
As I said earlier, meeting the other professionals at the show was a real treat. So much talent concentrated. Known faces I had the pleasure of reconnecting with like Ben Templesmith, Mike McKone, Dean Haspiel, Ben Kahn/Katherine Kralowec or JG Jones and new ones such as Anthony Spay and Tara Flynn, Gavin Smith, Christa Cassano, Amy Chu and so many more!
Thanks to the intrepid Danny Fingeroth, I was also invited at two panels, one of which with legendary creator Keith Giffen! 15 year old me was laughing from inside.
And wait… It gets better. Two words: Chuck Norris!
So I’m turning to Will and I tell him: “I drew this Chuck Norris piece and you have to bring Chuck to the table so he can sign it!”. “Challenge accepted!” he replies. Will is notoriously famous for bringing everyone and their mothers to the table. Saturday afternoon, he finally makes contact with Gena, Chuck’s wife. He runs back to the table, and hollers at me: “Come on! Quick! Chuck is waiting for us!”. So, I’m taking my art and run towards the Celebrity section of the hall. Gena is happy to introduce us to Chuck. We shake hands. Tell him, both of us, how much his fight with Bruce Lee means to our childhood and we give him two pieces of art: Will drew a Bruce Lee, and I drew Chuck with Spidey and Batman (and their sorry asses). He loved both of them, thanked us and said he’s hang those in his personal museum (his ranch that was just turned into a museum). We wanted a photo, but the promoters and security didn’t allow it. Nonetheless, it was one of those cool moments you can only experience at cons. Happy me.
Some little miracles also happened during that show. Last Friday, Will and I arrived early and started looking for a place to sit, have a coffee and talk projects. We passed by a Newsstands booth a block from the Convention Center. It wouldn’t be such a thing if there was actually NO magazines but… Only comics! We started talking with Frank, the owner of the little booth, a true comic book fan and a great guy to boot. After we introduced ourselves, Will offered to trade an original sketch (a Spider-Man he drew on the spot) for a comic book (an issue of Cable). Frank was so happy he offered me an issue of ROM after I told him I was a fan of the classic Mantlo/Buscema issues. Frank has been working there since 1998 and even has his own twin brother operating another newsstand booth a few blocks away! Comics run in the family for these awesome guys.
But the blessings didn’t stop there! Sunday morning, we left Will’s place without having had a coffee (a crime by any means). So we stopped on a random service area Starbucks on the way. Once again, Magic Will Torres had to tell everyone and their mothers that I was the co-creator of Spider-Man Noir. The manager, Lorenzo, was so happy to hear that that he offered to refill our cups. We ended up drawing him a couple of Spidey Noir pieces and, in his own words, that was “the best thing that happened to him in two weeks”. Comics can make people happy. For those who wonder why we’re doing what we do, here’s the answer: to share that love with everyone. Comics are –BY FAR– the best medium there is.
And that’s what I want to remember from Wizard World Philly. Not the business part that sucked. But the human part that was beyond anything we lived this year in a convention.
To be Continued.