Comicpalooza: How Houston’s Comics Convention Came Back From the Dead to Become One of the Best in the Country

One of the best comics conventions in the nation is here in Houston

The Ultimate Fantasy rendered comics convention-going in Houston all but extinct.

James Bedward is roaming the halls of the George R. Brown Convention Center dressed as Oliver Queen, a.k.a. Green Arrow, complete with his action hero's signature hood and bow. It's a new look for Bedward, a 28-year-old Houstonian who has been going to conventions since the age of eight.

At previous comics conventions, he'd gone as Luke Skywalker's father, Anakin, as portrayed by Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones, or as Dr. Horrible. But he knew Doctor Who, Torchwood and Arrow actor John Barrowman would be at Houston's Comicpalooza 2014.

Heyoo! It’s Steve the Bandit Raider and mascot for the Borderlands video games posing in the dealer hall at Comicpalooza.
Chuck Cook
Heyoo! It’s Steve the Bandit Raider and mascot for the Borderlands video games posing in the dealer hall at Comicpalooza.
J. August Richards, Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg from the hit television Avengers spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. watch as legendary Marvel comics creator Stan Lee takes the microphone at a panel discussion.
Chuck Cook
J. August Richards, Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg from the hit television Avengers spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. watch as legendary Marvel comics creator Stan Lee takes the microphone at a panel discussion.

It was too good a chance to play off his own likeness to Stephen Amell, who stars in The CW's ­Arrow, now into its third season.

Walking by Barrowman's table, chock-full of fans waiting to get the John Hancock of Malcolm Merlyn (his Arrow persona) and Captain Jack Harkness (on Doctor Who and Torchwood), Bedward pauses with his hood lowered just at Barrowman's peripheral vision. Glancing up from under his hood, he notices Barrowman looking up briefly, then doing a double take before returning to his signing.

Then Barrowman slowly lifts his head and in a menacing tone of voice, spits out Arrow's catchphrase, "You have failed this city!" in Bedward's direction. The actor jumps up from his seat and runs toward Bedward, grabbing him from behind just as Merlyn would in an action scene with Arrow.

Bedward thinks, "Oh, are we really doing this? We're totally doing this!" as Barrowman tells someone to take Bedward's camera and snap a picture.

"Put your hand behind my head," Barrowman tells Bedward, and the two struggle while people clap and take photos.

Talk about comics convention-goer bliss. Bedward had skipped the long lines for autographs (paid) and photos (paid) and the even longer lines to get into one of the panels and instead had gotten an up-close-and-personal with one of the convention's stars, who'd re-enacted a scene from Arrow with him.

If you spend any time around Comicpalooza these days, you'll find that amazing stories of fan interaction like this are becoming more and more commonplace. In addition to his stunt with Bedward, Barrowman wandered around the con floor taking pictures with little kids dressed as tiny Time Lords and stopped by local comics shop booths such as 8th Dimension's to chat with the owners and pick up Doctor Who swag to take home as gifts.

Jason Mewes of Clerks and Dogma fame was in his element, spending endless amounts of time away from his signing table and casually talking to fans one on one.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer star James Marsters dined on cupcakes prepared and decorated by Lori Brewer before heading out to mingle among the guests on the way to a panel. Those cupcakes came recommended by Miltos Yerolemou, Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones, who came out to bow and worship Brewer when she first offered him some at Space City Con.

Now she's known among the guests as Cupcake Girl.

Geek culture as represented by Comicpalooza has exploded in Houston. The 2014 convention drew nearly 33,000 attendees, a 55 percent increase from last year and nearly triple the 11,000 attendance of 2012. An independent survey firm said that Comicpalooza resulted in at least 10,000 hotel room nights being booked over the weekend, most of them in downtown Houston, and according to estimates by the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, brought more than $10 million into the city. True, right now Comicpalooza's draw is still a fraction of the 130,000 people who attend San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con, but each year the growth becomes more and more pronounced. In 2007 NYCC pulled only 15,000, so it's not inconceivable that Comicpalooza could rise from its current state to take its place as a national geek destination with industry support.

That would be something, but it's been a long time coming. For nearly three straight decades, Houston has been without any sort of significant comics convention presence. In fact, the demise of the A-level convention reputation Houston once had was so spectacular that it rendered the city toxic to guests and dealers alike. Until now.

In 1982 there was supposed to be a con to end all cons here in Houston. And there was, but not in a good way. It was billed as the Ultimate Fantasy, a product paired with the respected name of Houstoncon, which had been providing a quality and successful con experience in the city since 1967.

Thereafter it would be known as the Con of Wrath, or the Ultimate Fiasco, and its failure is the stuff of geek song and legend.

Ultimate Fantasy was the brainchild of Jerry Wilhite, one of the many people involved in the comics convention scene trying to fill some very big shoes. Houstoncon had begun in the '60s as part of a powerful consortium of Southwestern cons that included Dallas and Oklahoma City. When the rotating convention was dissolved after Dallas bucked the rotation trying to impress the site committee of WorldCon (the science fiction con that hosts the Hugo Awards), Houstoncon continued to grow and grow on its own.

That was because of a man named Earl Blair Jr. Blair was a master promoter. He's the one who opened the con up from the snobbish, comics-only mind-set that used to get Star Trek fans mocked and laughed out of conventions. He invited big mainstream stars such as Roy Rogers and advertised by going on Dialing for Dollars. Under Blair's leadership, Houston quickly became a major player in the convention scene drawing guests from all areas and fans from around the country.

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Any of you reading this who WERE at the "Con of Wrath" in 1982—please get in touch with me on The Con of Wrath Facebook page! The doc is mine, and we're about to come back to Houston to shoot more stories and check footage & research.

The legend of "Con of Wrath" is actually based on some very important missing dots we have found out about to connect, and we look forward to not only preserving the con/show story but also looking at fandom, and cons and actors in 1982, pre-Internet and pre-social media.... franchises, actors, dealers, and the fact women have always been a force in fandom—at least, Trek fandom.

I think the '82 fiasco may have hurt Houston fandom for 10-15 years at most, but the generations turn over quickly just as media tech and franchises have. The comic-con reinvention, to be more than just comics, and embrace the media people (actors & designers & writer-producers) has been a nationwide phenom since Comic-Con San Diego went that way in the 90s. Comic-cons all over have been exploding, and it's due to Hollywood big and small screen, not comics. The smaller, traditional, more personal one-niche franchise cons, including old-style lit cons, are still out there --and a bit less insane as the others grow huge.


Being the Sound Engineer for the Ultimate Fantasy as well as the AV guy at the Shamrock Hilton at that time, I would now like to extend my personal apologies to the city of Houston and the cast and crew of Star Trek:The Wrath of Khan for us completely destroying the convention scene here in Houston for the last 30 years. It makes me very happy to know that our city has finally recovered, and that Comicpalooza is doing so well now to erase all the bad memories that we caused. I pray that Comicpalooza goes on to live in this city forever. and I hope you all forgive us for the mess we made. We were trying to do something amazing. As they say... the best laid plans, etc. It was a fun time though, despite what happened. Memories I wouldn't trade for anything. To Houston and Comicpalooza I say, Live Long and Prosper.

Mike Rose