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

Divine intervention or not, the Ultimate Fantasy rendered comics convention-going in Houston all but extinct.

During the ensuing downtime, two movies came out a couple of years apart that would forever change not only the face of Houston convention-going but geek culture itself, though no one knew it at the time.

The first was Doctor Who in 1996. The long-running and wildly popular adventures of an alien called The Doctor who traveled in space and time in a blue police box that was bigger on the inside than the outside had been canceled by the BBC in 1989. In the seven years since that cancellation, a producer named Philip Segal dreamed of reviving the show in America with a new Doctor for a new audience.

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.

Some of the biggest names in film at the time were considered for the new Doctor. British actors like Tim Curry and Eric Idle topped the list, but American names like Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey and even Harrison Ford were also bandied about. Eventually, Segal settled on a then relatively unknown British actor named Paul McGann.

"When Phil first got in touch, I turned him down," McGann said in an interview at Comicpalooza. "No interest whatsoever. But they kept coming back. Phil said, 'I know, you don't see yourself as The Doctor, but let's work on it.' I told him, 'I think he's misanthropic, melancholy and dark,' and Phil just kept nodding along and saying, 'Yep, that's my guy.'"

The TV movie was meant to serve as the pilot for a new television series at Fox, but it was a critical and commercial failure. According to McGann, it had the difficult task of trying to capture an American audience for the show that was assumed to exist at the time but which clearly didn't, a fact that he noted with some chagrin whenever he looked around the floor at this year's convention, which was absolutely stuffed with Doctor Who shirts, costumes and collectibles.

Back in 1996, though, McGann found his relationship to Doctor Who to be comparable to that of George Lazenby to James Bond. He was something of a pariah, an almost-Doctor. Many fans declared him the worst Doctor ever, while others simply pretended he had never existed in the first place. For five straight years, McGann avoided comics conventions, feeling left out and dejected.

However, though the film had been a flop in America, it was actually fairly well-­received in The Doctor's home country of Britain.

"Something happened. The BBC took an interest again," said McGann. "At least they got over their embarrassment."

McGann and other actors began producing new Doctor Who radio play adventures for Big Finish, a British production company. Not only did these well-regarded releases regrow the popularity of Doctor Who in general and Paul McGann's Doctor in particular, many of the people involved in their production, such as Nicholas Briggs and Gary Russell, would go on to work on the show when it returned to television in 2005 and became the mega-hit it is today.

Last year McGann made a surprise return to Doctor Who as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of the show. Now his autograph line dwarfs those of most of the other guests, and there are regular calls for the actor to get his own spin-off or to return to the show itself. Doctor Who fandom is a dominating force in geek culture now, one that actually competed with Hollywood blockbusters when "The Day of the Doctor" was screened in theaters, and it has finally forgiven and embraced a man who helped bring about its regeneration.

"It's not the sort of thing I like to admit, but when the pilot failed, I thought I'd be immortalized for all the wrong reasons," McGann said. "Even until the '00s, I just felt tolerated. It's really only in the last 12 months that I know now that Doctor Eight is bang in the center of things. It's very cool."

The second film was Blade in 1998. Before Blade, there weren't really any good or commercially successful comic-book movies. Sure, there was Tim Burton's Batman, but that hero belongs as much to television and film as he does to comics. There had never been a great Spider-Man film, or Captain America. Such things were, as far as Hollywood was concerned, losing properties.

Then Wesley Snipes showed up with a lesser-known hero without a compelling rogue's gallery and did something no one had ever really thought about doing before: simply making a good action film. You could easily have never read a Blade comic before and still loved those movies, and, more important, many people did just that. Blade was a critically and financially successful trilogy of films that is still ranked very highly by comics fans.

A decade later, Marvel itself would take the plunge with Iron Man, and now the superhero movie is an institution that makes more money than some entire countries.

One man who saw that coming was John Simons, formerly the owner of Midnight Comics and now the head of the juggernaut that is Comicpalooza.

"When I saw Blade, I had this realization," Simons said in a phone interview. "I felt comics were going mainstream. Blade showed me that, and it was the first time I had ever seen a successful, good comic-book movie. I could tell people were going to like these movies even if they didn't like the comics. Now it's become the only new source of material for Hollywood. Sin City and 300 and other stuff. A lot of opportunity."

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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