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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

"We were big," said Terry Hanks, who was a founding member of the Houston Comic Collectors Association in 1965 at the age of ten and an important figure in the early scene. "We were very, very big for a long time. It was a perfect storm. There just weren't a lot of other conventions outside San Diego and New York. We brought in guests like Roy Rogers and Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan, that pulled in Joe Public off the streets. Guests were paid. Things were done right."

Mistretta: “The change to a long holiday weekend enabled more fans from out of town an opportunity to travel for Comicpalooza.”

When Blair left Houston in 1977, there simply wasn't anyone else like him, and the scene began to fall apart. The comics industry itself was in decline. Story output and quality started to bottom out at DC and Marvel, and comics-shop culture had not really emerged yet. Fewer and fewer young fans were discovering comic books in their local drugstores, and many of the older fans who had once driven the convention scene as part of the collectors association had moved on to girls, cars, jobs and families. Not Wilhite, though. He wanted very much to be the next Earl Blair, and he had a vision.

Ultimate Fantasy was ambitious even by today's standards. It was to be a huge stage show hosted in the Summit and featuring a rotating stage and a laser light display. The guests would be most of the stars of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, who would re-enact parts of the film. Nothing like it had ever been done before, and Wilhite was convinced he could pull it off.

In 1996 Fox unsuccessfully attempted an American revival of the British hit show Doctor Who with a television movie starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.  Now, with a recent appearance in the show’s 50th-anniversary celebration and a renewed interest in McGann’s audio adventures as The Doctor, he finds himself considered one of the best actors ever to assume the role.
Chuck Cook
In 1996 Fox unsuccessfully attempted an American revival of the British hit show Doctor Who with a television movie starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Now, with a recent appearance in the show’s 50th-anniversary celebration and a renewed interest in McGann’s audio adventures as The Doctor, he finds himself considered one of the best actors ever to assume the role.
James Bedward and Lori BREWER as Green Arrow and Black Canary, respectively. After being noticed at Comicpalooza, Bedward was asked to appear as the hero at events for terminally ill children in Houston.
Chuck Cook
James Bedward and Lori BREWER as Green Arrow and Black Canary, respectively. After being noticed at Comicpalooza, Bedward was asked to appear as the hero at events for terminally ill children in Houston.

So convinced, actually, that he got several investors to mortgage their houses. Billboards went up all over the city. Ads appeared in TV Guide and Starlog. Wilhite believed that Ultimate Fantasy and the associated Houstoncon at the Shamrock Hotel would draw 10,000 people, including Trekkies, from as far away as Japan and Europe.

Organizers needed 5,000 people just to break even. Two months before the event, barely 400 presale tickets had been sold.

"Luckily, I was too old and smart to get involved, though I was approached," Hanks said. "I was just out of law school and broke. Jerry just didn't have the background to pull it off. His expertise was being a clerk at Sunny's convenience store. It was pure delusion of grandeur. He was going to put on a great con and make a lot of money and be looked up to."

When the stars of the convention appeared, they found out that their hotel rooms hadn't been paid for. They were forced to pay out of their own pockets.

As the con progressed, it became apparent that the thousands of attendees needed would not appear. Vendors and venue realized that they were not going to be paid. Shamrock management contacted all the dealers in the hotel and told them that unless the remaining balance was collected by that evening, they would all be thrown out. They passed the hat to keep the doors open and hoped to sell enough to recoup their losses.

And Jerry Wilhite had disappeared. No one could find him. Or any of the money that was supposed to materialize. With him he took Houston's reputation as a place for comics and science fiction pop-culture acceptance and celebration. Word went out from guests and dealers alike to avoid the city. The people in Houston didn't know what they were doing.

"What I could never figure out was that with all this advertising and plans, that no one ever seemed to really acknowledge that, that at some point these stars and the Summit were going to want to get paid," said Hanks. "Did he set out to rob people? No, I don't think so. Did he rip people off? Yes, that's what happened. He kept digging the hole, and when he realized how bad he'd messed up, he ran. Jerry didn't face the music. Once this all happened, it was the nail in the coffin. No one wanted to be responsible for cleaning up the mess."

Wilhite would continue to be involved in comics culture. In 1986 he opened a string of comics shops using a settlement he'd received from a car accident. These shops, too, would not live up to Wilhite's expectations and ultimately closed. Disillusioned, Wilhite started attending Lamb of God Lutheran Church in Humble in 1989 and wrote a Christian memoir looking back over his involvement in comics and gaming. In it, he warns readers about the dangers of occult activities like playing Dungeons & Dragons or watching horror movies.

"I have realized what had happened in my past," Wilhite writes in the introduction to Entertainment of Death. "First, from 1969 to 1973, it was the Lord helping me stay out of the occult. Again, in 1982 it was the Lord helping again. He knew I would have gotten back into drugs and fallen away totally if Ultimate Fantasy had succeeded. He also saw where the comic book business would have eventually taken me if it had succeeded.

"I am not saying that the Lord caused all of these failures, but I did not involve Him in them or listen to Him. I was doing it on my own accord and, of course, if you do something of your own accord or of man's, you will ultimately fail. If I had involved the Lord, I would not have done a lot of the things I did. If you fail in a venture, don't blame the Lord. The Lord doesn't make you fail, but neither can He help you if you don't listen to Him."

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9 comments
larryn75
larryn75

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.


markie19
markie19 topcommenter


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thenightgalleria
thenightgalleria

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

 
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