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 first Comicpalooza, in 2008, was simply an event that brought comics artists and products to a screening of The Dark Knight. Response was so good that Simons kept on doing it, until he was approached by the city of Houston about doing a comics convention.

"Several years ago, we began looking at ways to grow our own conventions and trade shows in partnership with operators," said A.J. Mistretta, senior public relations manager at the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Comicpalooza was one of the first of these, and has proven to be quite successful. We partnered with John Simons, providing him and his team with the right contacts and knowledge to help create a thriving comic con. Now in its sixth year, Comicpalooza has exceeded expectations and we continue to partner on new conventions and trade shows that occur annually here in Houston."

Another factor was the switch from an April date to Memorial Day weekend, Mistretta said. "The change to a long holiday weekend enabled more fans from out of town an opportunity to travel for Comicpalooza and was strategically valuable to hotels and the convention center because it doesn't conflict with other business, allowing the event to grow unfettered," he said.

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.

Turning Comicpalooza into the giant exhibition it has become wasn't an easy task, and Simons knew that when he started. By now, the memories of the Con of Wrath had faded, but all that meant was that Houston had gone from a bad reputation to no reputation. If this thing was going to get done, it would have to get done big.

"Houston likes things big," Simons said. "There's so much to do here, so much to see, and the people know that. You have to bring a lot to the table or they'll go somewhere else. Because they can."

Channeling the spirit of Earl Blair, Simons decided that he would do things very differently from the way small conventions had before him. Advertising for a comics convention in the 21st century was still an archaic business centered mostly on distributing flyers in local comics shops. As the owner of one of those shops, Simons figured out that the city just didn't have a big enough comics-store crowd to launch a convention of any size that way. According to Simons, although Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country, it was only the 14th-largest comic book market.

"Houstonians like comics, but they weren't going to comic shops," he said.

Instead, he partnered with everyone from the Houston Symphony to the Texas Renaissance Festival to try to include people from all walks of culture to join him for Comicpalooza. The symphony has certainly embraced geek culture over the past five years, featuring concerts dedicated to both video-game music and superhero-movie soundtracks. Of course, fantasy fans of all ages love RenFest, and both employers and regular attendees often make up a huge crossover fanbase for much of the geek world.

That "something for everyone" approach has not been seen in the city in a major way since the glory days of the 1970s, and to judge by the lines at the 2014 event, it has clearly worked.

"Once you've won over a Houstonian, they're with you all the way," said Simons. "It really is a unique city. One of a kind."

Comicpalooza has become a favorite on many people's lists. Local comics publisher Red 5 counts on it every year now. Owner Scott Chitwood said when you factor in the cost of travel to San Diego's Comic-Con, Houston's Comicpalooza is where he makes his biggest profits once expenses are subtracted.

"It succeeds in spite of itself," Chitwood said, citing some of the organizational issues that continue to plague the convention because of the high turnover in its staff and the general DIY way in which the ever-growing exhibition is handled. "They always manage to pull it off, though. And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger."

Lori Brewer, who has been to five conventions this year alone, labels Comicpalooza her favorite. A veteran of the experience, she stepped in at the last moment to run the Cos­play Character Pokémon Battle Panel when the original host no-showed. Under her direction, trainers pitted Where's Waldo against the Skull Kid from Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask Pokémon style. Everyone had a blast.

"I felt like a hero this weekend," said Brewer, who had to wait until after the convention to be interviewed by phone since the throng of guests kept interrupting to take photos with her and Bedward. "I love getting my picture taken. My favorite thing was when a little kid would come up to me with bright eyes. As if you were that character."

It's a sentiment expressed by the professional pretenders as well.

"Some of the best, funniest and cleverest people you'll ever meet come to these things," said Paul McGann. "It's sociable. It's got a family atmosphere. And you know what? We make these for the kids and the fans. It belongs to them. When you come in that spirit, you have a ball. I love this kind of thing."

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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