Comicpalooza: How Houston’s Comics Convention Came Back From the Dead to Become One of the Best in the Country
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
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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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
James Bedward agrees. He said he attends Comicpalooza to see the wealth of creative energy around him.
"I love the bringing of the culture together to have a good time," Bedward said. "That's what I look forward to. People to talk shop with. See all the creativity that's around. It's opened up a new world."
After making a splash with his Green Arrow costume, Bedward met an acquaintance of Robert "Clutch" Boudwin, the mascot for the Houston Rockets. Boudwin is actively involved with charity work and was looking for costumed heroes to invite to a special event at the Houston Zoo for terminally ill children. Bedward has been asked to be one of those heroes.
"This is something I've wanted to do since I started cosplay," said Bedward, who works for a medical warehousing company by day. "Helping out others, bringing joy to their eyes. I want to help these kids forget about things for a while."
Bedward is hard at work adding as much characterization from the show as possible to polish up his act for the upcoming young audience. He's looking forward to more chances to help and has begun the process of crafting other costumes to add to his repertoire. His current project is The Scarlet Spider, Peter Parker's flawed Spider-Man clone who managed to overcome his villainous origin story and come to Houston as the city's first costumed protector in the Marvel universe.
"Kaine [The Scarlet Spider's real name] isn't like Spider-Man," Bedward said. "He didn't really want to be a hero, but he can't help being a hero. He can't help but help people. That's something I admire. He's perfect for Houston."
Thanks to Comicpalooza, now the people who play heroes have reason to come to the city to meet the people they inspire. And the people they inspire? They have a reason to get together and play heroes.
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