Special Events

Comicpalooza 2016 Day 1: Houston, We Don’t Have a Problem

Over the last year the fan convention scene in Houston has been somewhat in a state of crisis. We exposed some of the shady aspects of Anime Matsuri, everything from unpaid debts to sexual harassment accusations against the founder. Then Comicpalooza’s attempt at a smaller, auxiliary convention in September, FanFair, was a poorly attended bust that drew very few attendees. Just weeks ago Space City Comic Con became national news after cast members of Sons of Anarchy, among other guests and professionals at the event, went unpaid and fans found their vouchers for autographs and photos unredeemed.

So it’s safe to say that geek culture fans were somewhat holding their breath and crossing their fingers that the bigger summer staple that is Comicpalooza would do something to redeem our string of failure and keep Houston from returning to its previous status as a pop culture backwater. The fact that Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam had agreed to return to the city and even accept the vouchers from SCCC seemed like a good sign, but I was still very cautious about what I’d see the first day.

Comicpalooza has never looked better. Maybe it’s me still recovering from the chaos of SCCC, with their lines laid out with tape on the floor and other organizational failures, but Comicpalooza has the organization down to a science now. It’s little things for the most part, but they show an evolution of throwing a con as an art and some very close attention to detail that made the first day the easiest to navigate I have ever had at the big show.

For instance, they now have separate information booths at both ends of the con. Simple, right, but it’s a subtle point that made the usual disorientation at the beginning disappear. The staff seems to have been beefed up considerably, as well, and the communications were top-notch. Things happened on time without fuss, and nearly every vendor I talked to mentioned that it was the smoothest sailing they’d had with the con ever. I don’t know how it will fare with the larger crowds on Saturday, but if anyone was worried that our largest comic convention was going to be a repeat of SCCC be at ease.

One of the things I’ve always loved the best about Comicpalooza is how big a tent it is. Calling it a comic convention doesn’t really do it justice. For instance, looking over the schedule the first thing that caught my daughter's and my attention was a presentation on the future of the International Space Station and its role in the journey to land a human on Mars. Comic-based? No. Awesome as heck? You bet!

In this contentious election season full of divisive and often xenophobic rhetoric, there was nothing more amazing to sit in a room full of scientists talking about the collaboration among nations in pursuing the science of space. As Dr. Tara Ruttley put it speaking of other nations, “we’ve gotten really good at being human with them.”

Though the whole presentation started out with technical difficulties involving the projector (the fact that it was overcome with a last-minute work-around solution that the audience wildly applauded had me quipping it was the most NASA thing ever), it was a rare chance to hear exactly how what we’re doing in space is benefiting us here on Earth. Investigation into bone-density loss in microgravity has better informed how to treat the same in the same bone loss the elderly experience on Earth. Water systems designed for the space station are replicated at home to deliver clean water to more people without a power source even necessary.

More than anything else it was the sheer hope that the presentation offered. I got a little chill when she pointed at my daughter and said that she had never known a world where humans were not living full-time in space. If there’s any greater celebration of the miraculous possibilities on display in cons like Comicpalooza I don’t know what it is.

Another fantastic new addition is Indie Game Alley, something I didn’t even know I wanted and now demand happen everywhere. Coordinating the video game aspect of Comicpalooza has always been something of a mess, but they definitely got it right this year. For one thing, it’s located right behind the children’s area, which maximizes a space where kids and adults can find something to do. Houston Retro Gamers have their amazing free play set-up with old systems. My daughter immediately fell in love with Duck Hunt, happily screaming death threats at pixelated birds.

While she did that I visited with the folks over at Houston Gaymers, a local non-profit gamer group specifically created for LGBT and straight ally inclusion. They host about 70 meetups over the course of the year, though this is their first for getting a booth at Comicpalooza. I highly recommend them as a group.

I met two great new indie video game developers in the ally. The first was Larry Hendrix and the prototype of his fighting game, Guardian Clash. Based on classic 2D Capcom fighters, specifically Darkstalkers, Guardian Clash uses personifications of folklore figures based off the May Queen, the Pumpkin King, Father Christmas and even the Easter Bunny. It’s fairly inventive, and the build I played was a fairly solid experience. Not a combo machine by any means, but big on distance games between fighters. Can’t wait to see it finished.

More my taste was Brandon Smith’s Rooti, a sidescroller starring a helpful cleaning robot sucking up bugs, This was fairly rough, and sometimes the similarity in playstyle to Nintendo’s Kirby were more than a little off-putting, but it’s also a very worthy entry in Houston’s ever-growing game development scene. Hopefully that scene can gain a bigger niche in future cons.

For the record, I called my daughter over to play Rooti. She played five seconds, said it was boring, and told me she wanted to go back to shooting stuff. My little state of modern gaming in microcosm. 

The last stop I made was visiting Chris-Rachael Oseland, the Kitchen Overlord. She sells a line of geek-themed cookbooks, something she started as a bet after an argument with a steampunk fan over proper use of absinthe. A former journalist, she now has books of dishes celebrating Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and more, all illustrated lovingly by Tom Gordon.

Comicpalooza is always a great place to recharge my ambition. Oseland told me that she shopped her Doctor Who cookbook around to every place she could find and every single one told her it was the dumbest idea they’d heard. So she published it herself on Amazon’s CreateSpace platform, and to date she’s sold over 37,000 of them. Like the panel from NASA, these cons are always brimming with the fanatic wonder of possibility, and that’s what makes it a never-miss for me. See you tomorrow with another report! 
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner